Since his early withdrawal from the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Andrew Cuomo has been reaching out to old adversaries and devoting himself and his campaign war chest to rallying opposition to the death penalty and the Rockefeller drug laws.
But as the 2006 statewide elections draw closer, that relatively low-profile work is taking on added significance as he seeks to become the Democratic nominee for State Attorney General. Depending on your point of view, Mr. Cuomo is either pioneering a new kind of issue-driven politics—he spent $50,000 of his campaign account arguing for drug-law reform—or he’s turning the issue advocacy into part of his campaign for Attorney General.
What caught the eyes of some Democrats in Queens and on the Upper West Side were two pieces of mail, both with Mr. Cuomo’s photograph front and center. They touted events that Mr. Cuomo had held in the neighborhoods, but they didn’t mention Mr. Cuomo’s campaign for Attorney General.
The mailings went out from an organization calling itself Building Stronger Communities and aimed at preserving federal housing funding. The group is not formally chartered, but its infrastructure comes from Mr. Cuomo’s most important backer: Local 1199 of the health-care workers’ union, a powerhouse of New York politics that has already contributed the legal maximum for a single organization, $50,100, to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign. The mailings were sent under the union’s bulk-mail permit, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, and the telephone number listed for the group is an extension at the union.
The union’s executive vice president for politics and legislation, Jennifer Cunningham, who is also playing a central role in Mr. Cuomo’s political campaign, said the use of the permit was a routine “in-kind” donation to the housing cause, and that the union has offered similar services to other groups.
For some, the question is whether the union’s contribution to Building Stronger Communities could be taken as aid to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign for Attorney General.
“It’s a question of whether it’s an in-kind contribution [to Mr. Cuomo’s political campaign],” said Jack Carroll, a Democratic election lawyer, referring to the Building Stronger Communities mailing. “There would have to be no coordination between Andrew and 1199 for the benefit of his Attorney General campaign.”
Mr. Cuomo said that the housing fight is not a part of his political campaign and noted that even if it were, there is no question of Local 1199 breaching the legal contribution limit, since it can give another contribution through its parent union.
But the same person running Building Stronger Communities, Ms. Cunningham, is steering Mr. Cuomo’s campaign, making the question of coordination complicated. The candidate appears to be operating in a “gray area,” according to Rachel Leon of Common Cause New York, who was shown one of the mailings.
“It’s perfectly legal, though questionable,” said Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, adding that “1199 is clearly trying to raise his visibility at the outset of the campaign for Attorney General.”
Mr. Cuomo rejected the notion that his photograph in the mailing reflected anything other than his role as a spokesman for housing issues.
“I was the former [Housing and Urban Development] Secretary who commenced [legal] action against the department, and I’m proud to lead the charge on this issue, and I have for the last 20 years,” he told The Observer, referring to his threat to sue the agency over budget cuts.
“This has nothing to do with his campaign,” Ms. Cunningham said, adding that many of Local 1199’s members struggle to pay for their housing. “I actually give a shit about what the federal budget looks like, and we are out there trying to generate some oomph so the federal budget doesn’t whack New York State communities.”
Mr. Cuomo isn’t the only candidate in the race whose off-season interests overlap with his political campaigning. His best-known rival, former Public Advocate Mark Green, heads a think tank funded largely by donors who have also supported him politically, and which has served as a platform in his time out of office. Another candidate, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, has raised his profile as the chairman of a group supporting a transportation bond issue this year.
But Local 1199 is the 800-pound gorilla of New York politics. Its support for Mr. Cuomo—the fruit of a relationship stretching back 15 years—has been unstinting and crucial to his early strength. Along with giving Mr. Cuomo money, the union has supplied political muscle and infrastructure—notably, the time of one of the state’s top organizers, Ms. Cunningham.
The alliance was hardly a surprise. Though Local 1199 backed Governor George Pataki in 2002, Mr. Cuomo and the union are old friends and allies. Governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, and union chief Dennis Rivera are veterans of many battles together, and in recent years the union has backed Mr. Cuomo’s campaigns against the Rockefeller drug laws and the death penalty.
But Local 1199 has run into trouble recently with the laws that regulate political contributions and bar certain coordination between campaigns and their supporters. The city Campaign Finance Board—a much stricter regulator than the state Board of Elections—has fined a City Council member from the Bronx, Annabel Palma, for allegedly illegally coordinating her campaign with Local 1199. Ms. Palma is disputing the fines in court, but it would be hard for anyone who was in the Bronx on Primary Day last month to dispute the central role that the union played in Ms. Palma’s campaign. Purple-shirted union workers stood on street corners around the district shouting Ms. Palma’s name, and her headquarters overflowed with union workers and operatives.
And high-profile officials, fearing Local 1199’s strength, have also contested the union’s activities, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign lawyer accusing the union of coordination on behalf of Democrat Fernando Ferrer.
Gearing Up for ’06
Mr. Cuomo is in a strong position, with early endorsements from Local 1199 and other unions, a famous name and a statewide recognition based on his aborted gubernatorial campaign three years ago. His work in fighting the drug laws and the death penalty has solidified his credentials as a liberal crusader.
“I am about the issues, and about organizing people around the issues to make change in New York. And the issues were not the most political issues,” Mr. Cuomo said. “But I believe people are tired with the political labels and tired with the political system, and what they want is progress and change and effectiveness, and that’s what I want to do.”
During his gubernatorial campaign, Mr. Cuomo was a sharp critic of the harsh anti-drug laws passed during Nelson Rockefeller’s years as Governor. The laws require fixed sentences for a range of drug-related crimes. Unlike some other Democrats—who see outright opposition to the laws as a political risk—Mr. Cuomo took the strongest possible stance against them, favoring complete repeal and returning sentencing discretion to judges.
The stance won him the support of activists who oppose the laws. Mr. Cuomo’s willingness to continue the campaign against the laws after his withdrawal from the gubernatorial campaign deepened that regard.
“What was impressive was that he took the position publicly, and shortly after he took the position he dropped out of the race—but he continued to work on the issue for the next years,” said Robert Gangi, the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York. “I was impressed with his commitment to it and his sticking to his guns in relation to it.”
Later, Mr. Cuomo turned his energy to another cause, one that he inherited from his father: total opposition to the death penalty. After the State Court of Appeals ruled that the death-penalty law was unconstitutional as written, Mr. Cuomo led the efforts to persuade the State Assembly not to rewrite the law to comply with the court’s concerns.
“He’s been tremendously active and tremendously effective,” said David Kaczynski, the executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. “He has really expended some energy to make sure the death penalty hasn’t been reinstated.”
The two issues figure to resonate with Democratic primary voters next year, although they would paint Mr. Cuomo into a liberal corner in the general election.
Mr. Cuomo’s housing campaign was along the same lines, associates of Mr. Cuomo said, adding that it was the smallest-scale of the three efforts, with a budget around $20,000. But it also has a much more personal edge: As the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Mr. Cuomo is a visible spokesman for the effort to roll back proposed cuts of more than 10 percent in the agency’s spending.
The housing campaign has had Mr. Cuomo appearing around the state and in city subway stations, where he recently appeared with two City Council candidates who are also former staff members of Local 1199, as well as other elected officials.
He also organized a community forum on the West Side to discuss the housing cuts, and mailings went out with the Building Stronger Communities label.
Upper West Side residents received mail with a large picture of Mr. Cuomo on one page and smaller pictures of the West Side officials in attendance on the other, with the news that the Sept. 17 forum had been a “great success.” (Mr. Cuomo said the mailings targeted Democratic Party activists.)
In Queens, some residents received mail with pictures of Mr. Cuomo and City Council member Helen Sears under the words “Sorry we missed you” and declaring “We must fight back!” against the cuts to H.U.D.
The mailings urged readers to visit the Web site or call the telephone number that rings at Local 1199 to support the campaign, which will end when the federal budget passes at the end of this year.
But the effort seems to be raising more attention among political insiders than among housing activists. The heads of two leading housing advocacy organizations, Housing First and the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, said they’d never heard of Building Stronger Communities. A third, Julie Miles of Housing Here and Now, said that she had been involved in the West Side event.
“We supported that particular event, but I don’t really relate to Building Stronger Communities as an ongoing coalition,” she said.
The Web site describes Building Stronger Communities as “a coalition of political officials, labor unions, community groups and not-for-profit organizations,” but some people whom Ms. Cunningham listed as members of the coalition said that they were not.
Council member Sears said that she didn’t see herself as a part of Mr. Cuomo’s organization but supported its goals.
“It certainly was separate and apart from my campaign and from his campaign,” she said.
Another group that Ms. Cunningham said was a central member of the coalition, the Brooklyn-based activist organization ACORN, also offered a different account.
Spokesman Jonathan Rosen, speaking of ACORN’s leaders vis-à-vis Building Stronger Communities, said: “They’re not part of the organization, have never received money from the organization, and have never been to a meeting of the organization. They were asked to co-sponsor [the West Side] meeting, and they haven’t heard anything from this group since.”
One person who did see himself as a member was George McDonald, the founder of the Doe Fund, which runs programs to help homeless men find jobs and housing. His group received funding from H.U.D. under Mr. Cuomo.
“This transcends political office,” Mr. McDonald said. “If there was ever a person we wanted to help us organize around this issue, it would be him—he convinced the Congress to save H.U.D. to begin with.”