Carl McCall’s sparsely furnished campaign office on Park Avenue South has been a pretty gloomy place recently. The candidate and his staff have been spending much of their time explaining to supporters and wary donors that all those negative press reports and depressed poll numbers aren’t really what they seem.
But in the next few days, a hardened political operative from Washington, D.C., will arrive at McCall headquarters to dispel the gloom and whip the campaign into shape: Harold Ickes. A centrally located ninth floor office has been prepared for his full-time occupancy. He has brought along his fund-raising Rolodex, and he’s expected to help sharpen the campaign’s fuzzy message.
Mr. Ickes, a longtime adviser to Mr. McCall and a close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, is a no-nonsense operative who is a veteran of many New York campaigns; he was a driving force behind the candidacies of Mayor David Dinkins and both Clintons.
The McCall campaign is asking him to do something that they haven’t yet managed to do on their own: reverse the direction of an electoral battle that is rapidly getting away from them.
“He understands better than anybody how this game works,” said top McCall adviser Bill Lynch. “He did it for Bill Clinton in New York, and he did it for Hillary last time out. As a fund-raiser and as a general tactician, he’s going to be very helpful.”
The arrival of Mr. Ickes signals that the McCall campaign is bulking up for the closing stretch, but it also suggests that the campaign is in urgent need of outside help to jolt it out of its malaise. With only three weeks to go until Election Day, Mr. McCall is relying on an array of heavy-hitting surrogates like Mr. Ickes to wage a last-ditch, come-from-behind effort. Mr. Ickes and others, including the Clintons, Senator Chuck Schumer and Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel will play an increasingly visible role in ratcheting up fund-raising and to drawing new media attention to campaigning across the state. Mr. Clinton has been making phone calls himself to raise money and help put together big-ticket events, such as an upcoming evening affair hosted by businessman Ron Berkle and Magic Johnson.
Mr. McCall needs all the help he can get. He has struggled for more than a week to talk about something other than a series of referrals he wrote on the letterhead of the State Comptroller’s office to the heads of companies that did business with the state, recommending jobs for a number of friends and relatives. The McCall letters have become a running subplot to the campaign, with the New York Post ‘s Robert Hardt Jr. in the role of the ever-present Inspector Javert.
Even when given an opportunity to change the subject, the McCall campaign has at times been slow to respond. On Oct. 4, the Daily News ran a story about Governor Pataki moving 250 jobs from ailing downtown Manhattan to work in Harlem on a pet project of Rev. Calvin Butts, who both candidates have been courting. On the day the story appeared, Mr. McCall was holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall to talk about equal pay for women.
News reporter Joel Siegel, who had written the article, asked Mr. McCall to comment on the disappearing jobs downtown. It was Mr. McCall’s cue.
The response: “I’m not aware of that. I haven’t seen the report.”
Mr. Siegel tried again, describing the story to the candidate.
“The idea is he’s moving jobs from lower Manhattan to Harlem?” Mr. McCall asked. “Just before the election?” He paused. “I haven’t seen it.”
That story died. The McCall letters kept coming.
Mr. McCall could learn from Hillary Clinton, whose campaign perfected the art of brushing aside or ignoring scandals. Stories about her embrace of Suha Arafat and her failure to tip an upstate waitress vanished amid her relentless focus on “the issues.”
McCall’s Best Hope
Mrs. Clinton, for her part, seems aware of the urgent need for Mr. McCall to duplicate her tactics. At an Oct. 7 appearance with Mr. McCall at his headquarters, she stood between the State Comptroller and Senator Joseph Lieberman, who had also come to praise Mr. McCall and denounce Mr. Pataki. Mrs. Clinton tried to draw a parallel between her race in 2000 and Mr. McCall’s current effort.
“Joe Lieberman came in and campaigned for me [in 2000, when he ran for Vice President], and now he’s campaigning for Carl,” she said. “I think there’s a connection. He came in and focused my race on the issues, and now he’s going to do it for Carl.”
In many ways, the parallel runs even deeper. Many of the people who played key roles in engineering Mrs. Clinton’s victory over Republican Congressman Rick Lazio are trying to do the same for Mr. McCall. In addition to Mr. Ickes, Mr. Lynch and former President Clinton, the campaign is studded with current and former Clinton staffers like senior advisor Eric Eve, fund-raiser Vivian Santora, adviser Sarah Kovner and operative Paul Elliott.
It’s the Clintons themselves who represent perhaps the McCall campaign’s best hope. Mr. McCall, a low-key public official running against a strong incumbent, has managed to raise only a minuscule fraction of the amount raked in by Mrs. Clinton, who at the time was a world-famous First Lady and who was running for an open Senate seat.
That fund-raising prowess can help Mr. McCall overcome his financial difficulties. The Clintons could easily raise millions of dollars between now and Election Day to add to the measly $1.1 million currently remaining in the campaign’s coffers. (Mr. Pataki, as of the same filing, had $12.2 million on hand, enough to blanket the airwaves with ads until Nov. 5.) Mrs. Clinton has already made the maximum allowable contribution from her political action committee to the McCall campaign, has raised $1 million from her top supporters and will host an additional fundraiser for him in late October.
But there is no shortage of differences between the two campaigns. And Mrs. Clinton’s campaign operation was famously effective at using surrogates to vouch for her: Senator Chuck Schumer reassured Jewish voters worried about her positions on the Middle East, Congressman Charlie Rangel made her an honorary black woman, and her husband, in ways subtle and not so subtle, assured New York’s voters would be lucky to have her.
The McCall campaign, by contrast, has thus far failed to leverage its high-profile surrogates effectively. The campaign gained some support during the Democratic primary election by touting an early endorsement from Mr. Schumer in a television ad. But they have yet to capitalize on the Clintons’ star power in New York. For now, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton have been asked by the campaign to help almost exclusively with the urgent task of raising money. Nor is the campaign likely to have the luxury anytime soon to concentrate on anything else: With the amount of money available as of the last filing, the campaign didn’t even have enough money to do basic things like get-out-the-vote operations in heavily Democratic neighborhoods.
Asked about his financial disadvantage, Mr. McCall usually says, “We will have enough to be competitive.” Standing with Mrs. Clinton at the Oct. 7 event, he suggested that the Governor had compiled his tremendous monetary advantage by pressuring donors or rewarding them with state contracts-something that state Democrats have accused the Governor of doing almost since he took office. And Mr. McCall predicted that his campaign’s fund-raising would pick up sharply over the last month of the campaign. “I think you’re going to find, in the coming days and weeks, that we are going to do very well,” he said.
In the meantime, though, Mr. McCall’s supporters are preparing to make do with what they have. At a recent meeting of the Council of Black Elected Democrats at the Langston Hughes library in Queens, Congressman Gregory Meeks brought attendees to attention with an emotionally plaintive speech about how Carl McCall, the first black Democratic candidate for Governor in New York, was going to have a pauper’s-field operation. Mr. Meeks said that it would be up to every official in the room, if they wanted to help Mr. McCall, to make up for the campaign’s shortcomings by going out into the streets of minority neighborhoods by themselves, if necessary, to rouse support for their candidate. “We’ve got to show that despite the money, we can win,” Mr. Meeks said afterwards.
Other of Mr. McCall’s supporters, ever hopeful, are still betting that they will. “I think the campaign is poised and ready to blow by Pataki,” Mr. Lynch said. “Everything’s going to kick in during the last three weeks. You never have enough money, and the bigger the race, the bigger the expectation. But this thing is going to get done out of folks’ passion and just wanting it to happen for Carl.