Albany Cozies Up, Quick, to Andrew Cuomo

On Feb. 2, the lobbyist and former senator Al D’Amato threw a fund-raiser at the 101 Club on Park Ave in support of “Andrew Cuomo 2010.”

The office was not specified.

“He’s a rising star,” said former mayor Ed Koch, who attended the fund-raiser but did not make a contribution. For his part, Mr. Koch said he would support Mr. Paterson in a potential primary against Mr. Cuomo, but he said the guests at the fund-raiser were “definitely” trying to build relationships with Mr. Cuomo, who he predicted would run for governor at some point in the future.

For many Democrats, the future is now.

“What you are seeing is that more and more people are doing these small fund-raisers for Andrew,” said one influential Democratic donor. “I am hearing more buzz about people wanting to do events for Andrew because they perceive themselves as needing to get on his radar. I think that’s starting to happen.”

“If I were a corporate donor,” the donor continued, “I would give to Paterson but start building a relationship with Cuomo.”

Some Democrats may not quite be ready to regard Cuomo for governor as a sure thing, but others, including those with experience running against Mr. Cuomo, are assuming battle positions.

Carl McCall, the former comptroller, who withstood a primary challenge from Mr. Cuomo in 2002, warned that another such effort would be “tougher” for Mr. Cuomo than just about anyone else in New York politics as a result of the resentment he engendered among black leaders during his 2002 insurrection.

Back then, the hyper-ambitious 44-year-old son of Mario Cuomo nearly ruined a promising public career, burnished during a stint as Bill Clinton’s housing secretary, when he rebelled against the establishment and ran against Mr. McCall. Mr. Cuomo miscalculated that his father’s deep support among black voters would trump the appeal of electing the first black governor of New York. He was very wrong, and had to drop out of the race days before the primary.

After being disabused of the notion that the governorship was immediately in the cards for him, Mr. Cuomo rehabilitated himself, assuming a much more humble public persona, mending relations with his party and winning election to succeed Eliot Spitzer in the attorney general’s office.

Running for governor again, even in these apparently opportune circumstances, would be a somewhat more challenging enterprise.

Asked if New York’s black leaders could support Mr. Cuomo in a primary against Mr. Paterson, Mr. McCall said, “No. No. No. Not only black leaders, but many others. No, I don’t think so. I think that there are a lot of people, whatever David Paterson’s position in polls—I think he’s got hard-core support, even with some of these unions, some of these unions that are beating him up. I think that he’s got a hard-core support that will stay with him.”

That irreducible base appears to be very small.

On March 3, Mr. Paterson scored the lowest gubernatorial rating in Marist Poll history, with only 26 percent of New York Democrats saying they would back the governor in a primary against Mr. Cuomo, who had more than double the support at 62 percent—a seemingly insurmountable margin. An hour and a half after the Marist Poll dropped in reporters’ in-boxes, Mr. Cuomo’s office issued a statement highlighting his success in reaching an agreement with Guardian Life Insurance as part of “his historic reform of the healthcare reimbursement system.”

“Right now things are certainly going well for Cuomo,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. “What you are seeing is a popular person who is being matched up against someone who is not held in high esteem at the moment.”

And while Mr. Paterson is counting on a shake-up of his staff to get him on the right track, the consulting firm Global Strategy Group, which helped elect Eliot Spitzer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Mr. Cuomo, as attorney general, officially severed their long chilly relationship with him on Feb. 24.

Global still considers Mr. Cuomo a client.

An increasing number of Democratic operatives, legislators and donors now consider a 2010 Cuomo candidacy for governor a matter of fact.

“I’m surprised to the degree it’s like a forgone conclusion,” said one Democratic operative. “We discuss it as if it is happening. All the stars are aligning. It’s a fact instead of ‘what if.’”

According to another Democratic operative, speculation in Albany had begun to shift from whether Mr. Cuomo would run to whether Mr. Paterson will stick around to challenge him.

Democratic members of the State Legislature are careful to declare their nominal support for the current governor, and they energetically argue that they have not witnessed any evidence of their colleagues trying to butter up Mr. Cuomo. But they are not exactly distancing themselves, either. Far from it.

“I’ve had the privilege to campaign with him,” said Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny. “He is a great man.”

Mr. Brook-Krasny said his colleagues were “taking a close look” at Mr. Cuomo.

He refused to speculate on whether Mr. Cuomo might challenge Mr. Paterson, whom he said he was happy to work with, low poll numbers and all.

“But if at some point Andrew Cuomo has a chance, I think he can do a great job,” Mr. Brook-Krasny said.

“Back in 2006, I was the first elected official on the East Side to endorse him for attorney general,” said Assemblyman Jonathan Bing. “So I’m somebody who has a very good long-standing relationship with him,”

Mr. Bing said that Mr. Cuomo was exceptionally well received when he spoke at a recent breakfast in front of members of the Assembly, but that it didn’t necessarily mean that he’d be running things by the beginning of 2011.

“I think many of us feel that he is a future governor of the State of New York down the road,” Mr. Bing explained. “But really without any connection to exactly when that’s going to happen.”

Assemblyman Adam Bradley called any talk of Mr. Cuomo running for governor “premature,” before speaking of Mr. Cuomo’s “courageousness and leadership” and saying, “I do think that people recognize that he’s been doing an excellent job as attorney general. He has taken the lead on issues that I’ve been advocating for quite a while.”

Given that aura of achievement, Mr. Bradley said, it made perfect sense that “anybody would want to formulate a relationship with somebody they think is doing a good job as attorney general. Forget whether he ends up becoming governor or not. That’s important enough, and beyond that, whatever his public office aspirations are, that’s a good relationship to have.”

But Mr. Bradley added that it was also good to have Mr. Cuomo on the bench, just in case.

“I think it’s a tremendous credit to the Democratic Party here in New York State to have someone like an Andrew Cuomo in the office of attorney general who, I think, could ably assume many different public offices if the opportunity arose. That’s good for any political party.”

Mr. Cuomo, it should be said, has noticeably, almost energetically, remained mute on the subject. For a politician who long ago earned a reputation as a seething, fiercely aggressive creature of ambition, his disciplined, almost Zenlike public silence on the subject has astonished some of his former critics. (His office politely declined to comment for this story.)

Even Mr. McCall now allows that the notion of Mr. Cuomo running as the Democratic nominee is far from unimaginable.

“Look, if David Paterson were in very serious trouble and particularly, say, if Rudy Giuliani was his Republican opponent, Andrew Cuomo’s position is, he’s the only person who can save the party,” he said.

Asked if he’d support Mr. Cuomo if he became the Democratic nominee, Mr. McCall responded, “I support Democratic candidates.”

jhorowitz@observer.com

Albany Cozies Up, Quick, to Andrew Cuomo