So you were hoping for a good fight. You wanted boldface names and big egos and the kind of bloody, drag-’em-to-the-mat exchanges that only a gubernatorial primary battle between Democrats Charles Schumer and Eliot Spitzer seemed to promise.
Well, fear not. Even though Mr. Schumer has decided not to run for Governor in 2006, seemingly clearing the Democratic field for Mr. Spitzer, New Yorkers can still hope for ringside seats to an equally bruising-and perhaps more lurid and ultimately desperate-Democratic primary in 2006.
A crowd of Democrats has formed in the race to succeed Mr. Spitzer as State Attorney General, eager to stake a claim to his legacy. Included in the field are two well-known politicians who must win if they are to continue their long political careers. Mark Green, who lost the Mayor’s race to Michael Bloomberg in 2001, and Andrew Cuomo, who dropped out of the Governor’s race in 2002, are the most prominent Democrats in the race.
Neither man has formally announced his candidacy, but both have been calling would-be supporters and contributors to prepare for a campaign. Several sources said that Mr. Green has formed a finance committee and is now eagerly lining up guests for a January fund-raiser. Should the two men follow through with their plans, New Yorkers can expect the campaign equivalent of MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch: a shameless slugfest in which two of New York’s flintiest politicos go head-to-head for their political lives.
“This is going to be a hands-around-the-throat campaign,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public policy at Baruch College. “These two guys are very aggressive, very smart, very ambitious, so they’re going to be throwing shots from the get-go.”
Mr. Green and Mr. Cuomo would not be the only candidates seeking the Democratic Party nomination. Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, former U.S. Attorney Denise O’Donnell, Queens Assemblyman Michael Gianaris and attorney Charlie King have all been pressing palms and raising funds for months. But many political insiders believe the Democratic race will in the end come down to those famous also-rans, Mr. Green and Mr. Cuomo. After all they have the names. They have the egos. And perhaps most important, they know that they can’t afford another loss.
Within the cranky world of New York politics, Mr. Green and Mr. Cuomo are widely seen as two smart but flawed politicians whose careers have been stymied more by personality than ability. Mr. Green, for instance, is generally known as a staunch liberal who served two terms as the city’s first elected Public Advocate. But he is also considered an inflexible politician with something of a tactless streak. During his race for Mayor in 2001, he told several Latino officials that he didn’t need them to win, “only to govern.”
As for Mr. Cuomo, he is perhaps best known as the effective but entitled son of former Governor Mario Cuomo. He first became known as his father’s arm-twister in chief, sealing deals and lining up votes in Albany. When he went on to serve as Assistant Secretary and then Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton, he earned notice for shaking up the bureaucracy but alienated people with his strong-arm tactics.
Such qualities would seem to put Mr. Green and Mr. Cuomo on a campaign collision course. True, they have gotten along just fine in the past-Mr. Cuomo and his father endorsed Mr. Green in the 2001 Democratic primary for Mayor-but they have never had to go up against each other. And they never have had so much at stake.
“For both men, this is the last one,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who worked on Mr. Green’s Mayoral bid. “If they lose this one, they can’t run again, so their political careers are on the line here.”
This is hardly what either man could have envisioned when he was a young politico, bursting with ambition. But in the last three years, both Mr. Green and Mr. Cuomo have seen their political fortunes plummet. In 2001, Mr. Green lost a race to the then-unknown Michael Bloomberg after a racially charged primary runoff with former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. A year later, Mr. Cuomo dropped out of the Governor’s race just a week before the primary, when polls showed him trailing his rival, H. Carl McCall, by more than 20 points. Both races left toxic tastes in the mouths of the party faithful, and newspapers penned their political obituaries. Mr. Green founded a small public-policy institute, the New Democracy Project; Mr. Cuomo took a job at a law firm. And that seemed to be that.
But now both men are planning to become the next Eliot Spitzer. It’s a telling choice, since neither Mr. Green nor Mr. Cuomo would have looked twice at running for Attorney General six years ago. Back then, the office of State Attorney General was often dismissed as a second-tier post for politicians who couldn’t break through to a higher-profile job. But Mr. Spitzer has turned the office into a marquee position. He has become the sheriff of Wall Street, the hero of shareholders. And suddenly everybody wants to be the “people’s Attorney General.”
“I was wrong [to pass it over],” Mr. Green told The Observer with a rueful laugh, referring to his decision not to run for Attorney General in 1998, when Mr. Spitzer beat incumbent Dennis Vacco. Back then, several supporters suggested that he run for the spot, but he turned them down to run for U.S. Senate in 1998 and ultimately for Mayor in 2001. “When I talked to my wife about running [this time], she said, ‘You should have done it 10 years ago.’ But you can’t change the past, you can only change the future, so I’m totally looking ahead.”
For Mr. Green, 59, that has meant schmoozing county chairs and setting up a 91-person finance committee headlined by attorney David Boies, financier Bruce Wasserstein and Showtime chief executive Matt Blank, among others. Sources close to Mr. Green said that committee members have each pledged to raise at least $25,000 for his war chest. The committee is expected to hold its first official fund-raiser in early January.
“I think Attorney General of New York State is an absolutely natural fit for Mark Green’s talents,” said Judith Hope, a former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party who has already endorsed Mr. Green. “he has gotten an early start, and I think he will be a very formidable candidate.”
But not so fast: Mr. Cuomo, 46, said in an interview with The Observer that he is also thinking about the job. “The Attorney General’s office is a great position, so I’m considering it. I’ve called people and asked”-Mr. Cuomo paused to correct himself-” people have called me and asked me to consider it, because they think that I’d be helpful to the ticket, and I’ve listened to their thinking and analysis. It’s an option I’m keeping open.”
However, Todd Howe, a close Cuomo friend who has worked for both father and son, parsed the situation a little differently, saying the younger Mr. Cuomo is in fact “aggressively talking to folks across the state.” Should he decide to run, he’ll have a head start in fund-raising: State campaign-finance records show that Mr. Cuomo still has more than $1 million left over from his 2002 campaign. Only Assemblyman Gianaris has more, with almost $1.5 million.
For all their strengths, Mr. Green and Mr. Cuomo both have checkered histories, and they will no doubt have to battle these demons almost as much as they’ll battle each other. For Mr. Cuomo, the big blemish will be his decision to walk away from the Governor’s race in 2002. For Mr. Green, it will be the shadow of his failed Mayoral campaign, as well as the perception that he has been around the campaign block one too many times. In the end, the winner of the Green-Cuomo showdown could come down to whoever is less unpopular.
“Attorney General is not a booby prize for having lost for Mayor and Governor; it’s about law enforcement and protecting people,” said Mr. Brodsky, who has spent the last year pressing palms at local political clubs in support of his own campaign for Attorney General.
Mr. Brodsky is part of a pack of candidates that has begun crisscrossing the state in hopes of building support. While none has the clout of Mr. Green or Mr. Cuomo, each has individual strengths-be it geography, race, gender, youth, experience-and could be competitive should the two heavyweights knock each other out.
“My credentials stack up as well as anybody’s,” said Assemblyman Gianaris, who, like Mr. Green, Mr. Brodsky and Mr. Spitzer, attended Harvard Law School. “I have been moving forward with this for over a year now, traveling the state, meeting with people and getting incredibly good response. So given a level playing field, I have as much as chance as anybody.”
Of course, the playing field for Attorney General is not a level one-at least not yet. Mr. Green and Mr. Cuomo have more name recognition and more ruthlessness, and there’s a good chance they will have more money. That’s bad news for the other candidates. But for New Yorkers with a taste for campaign melodrama, it means only one thing: It’s going to be a gory fight.