Cuomo Gears Up, Says Nothing New

In the past several weeks, several veterans of New York politics received calls from Andrew Cuomo’s top operatives and were asked the same question: We’re looking for good people; you know anyone?

“They need bodies,” said a person familiar with the conversations. “There’s no doubt things have gotten busier, things have gotten headier.”

At the same time, the Cuomo team has asked Stephanie Berger, a Democratic fund-raiser who splits her time between New York and Washington, to devote more energy to the campaign, where her firm has been a consultant, according to a source familiar with the Cuomo operation. Her work comes in addition to that of Cindy Darrison, Amy Dowell, Ryan Naples, Diana Doukas and Cathy Blaney, all of whom are paid by Andrew Cuomo 2010 to help raise money.

Cuomo 2010 is also advertising for new interns to work on “a reputable and robust statewide campaign.”

That Mr. Cuomo is taking steps to prepare for a campaign heading into an election year is not self-evidently extraordinary (even though he faces no competition for his attorney general seat).

It is the context that makes things interesting. Mr. Cuomo trounces the deeply troubled incumbent David Paterson in the polls, and he has more than enough help in place to be out-raising the governor by a lopsided margin. (Mr. Cuomo raised $5.1 million between January and July, while Mr. Paterson raised $2.3 million.)

It’s getting ever harder even for the more political disciplined among Mr. Cuomo’s allies to maintain an air of mystery about what the attorney general is up to.

“I think, obviously, it’s too early to tell what he intends to do,” said Assemblyman Joe Morelle, an old friend of Mr. Cuomo’s who leads the Democratic Party in Monroe County. “But Andrew—it shouldn’t be a surprise to people that Andrew is thinking in broader terms—not because he may run for governor next year, but because since he was 20 he has been in the center of New York and national politics.”

With Mr. Paterson teetering, and in a very unfavorable position for a run next year, Mr. Cuomo’s public discipline has been flawless. He says again and again that his only political plan for 2010—“at this time”—is to run for attorney general. He publicly reminds us all of this constantly, including last week during a trip to Buffalo. Democrats gathered there to officially install Jay Jacobs as chairman of the state committee, and for a round of autumn politicking.

Mr. Cuomo arrived on Sept. 29, a Tuesday. He announced criminal charges against the employees of a debt-collection service, and began hobnobbing. Mr. Cuomo was hosting a breakfast for delegates the next morning at the Hyatt hotel. The night before, he had convened a reception on the fourth floor of the Pearl Street Grill, several blocks on the other side of Niagara Square from the hotel.

“It was one of those evenings where there was a cross section of people there: people from labor, people from health care, people from the legal community, educators. There was a very great cross section of people, and all were very interested in meeting and talking with the attorney general,” said Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, one of the attendees.

“It was mobbed. It started as a thing for the western New Yorkers, but everybody was trying to get in,” said a Democratic delegate (who, incidentally, was not one of those who made it).

Attendees munched on a spread of bar food and downed pints of the restaurant’s signature beers—the stiff, hoppy “Lake Effect” pale ale and the richer “Street Brawler” stout—before Mr. Cuomo gave a short speech. He stayed and mingled, thanking the crowd for the support they’d given him in the past.

“It was fabulous,” Mr. Schroeder said. “I went to several different receptions that evening, and the one that was probably the most fun and abuzz was Andrew Cuomo’s. So that was nice, and I think it’s reflective of his good work over the last three years.”

Mr. Schroeder is unabashed about where he thinks that good work should lead Mr. Cuomo: to the governorship. He pointed specifically to Mr. Cuomo’s passage of a bill facilitating the consolidation of local governments, his work to overhaul predatory student lending and his exposure of bonuses paid to executives at AIG.

The result has been an approval ratings in the high 60s, the only cost of which seems to be that he will have to continue to parry questions about whether he will run for governor.

Delegates bleary-eyed from Tuesday night’s networking returned to breakfast in the Hyatt Ballroom to hear new themes from Mr. Cuomo: a desire to “restore the trust in Albany”; a belief that “we’re going to have to balance that budget in a totally different way”; a promise to “reorganize this government.”

A headline in the Buffalo News said the speech sounded “gubernatorial”; Mr. Cuomo insisted it did not, saying that “in many ways I’ve been talking about the same things I’ve been talking about for the past three years.”

“Personally, what I would like to do is focus on being attorney general this year,” Mr. Cuomo added, ridiculously, but with a straight face.

He bumped into David Paterson in a hallway, gave him a hug, told him to “go get ’em” and left for New York without waiting around to watch what followed.

Mr. Cuomo’s dutiful adherence to his set script has allowed him, among other things, the ability to go about the very conspicuous business of his office, which continues to yield him the benefits of a campaign—a constant presence in the news, the ability to deliver popular, populist messages on the most pressing voter issues—without actually opening himself up to criticism from an opponent. (See, because he doesn’t technically have an opponent, because he’s technically running for attorney general, unopposed.)

The issues his office has chosen to take on are trumpeted by an aggressive and attentive press staff. (A press staff, it should be said, that does not comment for articles like this one.)

Mr. Cuomo’s aides—principally Joseph Percoco, his special counsel—
remain in constant contact with prominent Democrats around the state. According to conversations with several Democratic operatives and people familiar with Mr. Cuomo’s operation, he also regularly takes advice from a stable of political professionals, including Jennifer Cunningham, the former political director of 1199 SEIU who now works for Knickerbocker SKD; Richard Sirota, a close friend from childhood; and John Marino, the Mario-era chair of the state party who is currently the managing director of Dan Klores Communications.

(In a brief interview, Mr. Marino told The Observer that Mr. Cuomo “is doing exactly what he should be doing, which is focusing on being attorney general.”)

This is the same team Mr. Cuomo is expected to activate when he finally declares he is running for governor. Whenever that is.

“The minute anyone becomes a candidate, publicly, they lose their virginity,” said veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked for Mr. Cuomo’s opponent in each of the attorney general’s two statewide campaigns. “And if you’re going to be pure, politically, you’ve got to be a virgin. In this climate, where the public views Albany as corrupt and inept, it is critical for him to remain who he is today, as long as he can. Otherwise, he becomes just like everyone else.”