The Final Days of the Summer’s Hottest Race

img 7205 The Final Days of the Summer’s Hottest RaceWhen the Democratic field for attorney general was finally set sometime this spring, the campaign was thought to be not so much a race by the five candidates to win the favor of the state’s five million Democrats, but to receive the blessing of one–the outgoing attorney general, Andrew Cuomo.

 

The most popular Democrat in New York was already cruising to his coronation as governor, and was known to want to stack the Albany deck with as many allies as possible. Both previous governors, after all, had been brought low by a crusading Attorney General Cuomo before their own weaknesses drove them from office.

The front-runner for Cuomo’s heart was Kathleen Rice. Mr. Cuomo’s team was impressed that she had won a resounding reelection as district attorney of Nassau County in November as Democrats across the state had tumbled at the polls. She was young, attractive, lacked political entanglements and hailed from a suburban swing county that Democrats needed to keep in their column at time when Republicans were rallying.

Whispered word went out that she was Mr. Cuomo’s pick. Although he remained formally uncommitted, Cuomo’s people began to give Ms. Rice money. When the first fund-raising numbers came out in July, Ms. Rice had raised almost twice as much as her nearest competitors. At the Democratic Rural Conference in May, Mr. Cuomo’s aides worked behind the scenes to give her a second-place finish in a straw poll. The next month, they helped engineer a highly unusual move at the state convention, placing all five attorney general candidates on the ballot and ignoring the floor vote, since a crowded field of candidates was likely to benefit Ms. Rice, the only woman in the race.

A full throated endorsement was thought to be imminent.

But it never came.

When asked recently on Fred Dicker’s radio show whom he supported, Mr. Cuomo hedged. “There are number of quality candidates in that race,” he said, mentioning Ms. Rice, as well as former ex-Spitzer deputy Eric Dinallo and wealthy trial attorney Sean Coffey. Now, days before the election, Mr. Cuomo was silent.

“She was never the favorite. You all dreamed it up,” said one Democratic operative close to Mr. Cuomo. “Once it looked like she wasn’t going to be the walkaway winner, Mr. Cuomo walked away from her.” Mr. Cuomo is thought to most fear the nomination of State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a ultra-liberal from the Upper West Side, who has focused much campaign energy on “social justice,” including his record in loosening the state’s drug laws. Mr. Schneiderman has basked in the endorsements of some of the state’s most powerful labor unions; Mr. Cuomo has pledged to rid Albany of their baleful influence. He is the favorite of the state’s progressive, activist class; Mr. Cuomo has mostly shunned them.

For months now, Ms. Rice and Mr. Schneiderman have been eyeing one another from across the ring. Every blog post or newspaper article that trumpeted one was challenged by the other. When Ms. Rice touted her success in reducing crime in Nassau, Mr. Schneiderman claimed her numbers were off. When Ms. Rice invited reporters into her campaign office for a chat about the state of the race, she decided to remind them of an incident earlier in the summer when Mr. Schneiderman’s car bumped an NY1 producer’s vehicle in a parking lot and drove away without leaving a note.

“The way people can tell what your judgment is about, what your character is about, is not by what you say or do in public, what do you do when people are watching,” Ms. Rice said about the bump. “But how you act and how you behave when you don’t think people are watching.” The incident, which an onlooker reported, nearly derailed Mr. Schneiderman’s campaign, allowing another candidate to step forward: Sean Coffey, an attorney who made a fortune representing pension funds in class-action lawsuits and is one of the country’s most generous donors to Democratic causes.

Mr. Coffey’s wealth led the other campaigns to fear that he would bury them with television advertising. So far, he has not, but he has wedged himself into the conversation. Despite the sunny demeanor of an old-school Irish pol, he slammed both candidates for failing to fully support disclosure of outside income for legislators. When they attacked, he was ferocious. When Mr. Schneiderman seized on news reports accusing Mr. Coffey of making millions by donating to politicians who in turn sent work to his law firm, Coffey’s spokeswoman called it “just another aimless hit-and-run attack–this time on a rising challenger seen as a roadblock to the senator’s aspirations for higher office.” And although political professionals wonder if he has either the base or the turnout operation to win next week, Mr. Coffey could sabotage either of the presumed front-runner’s chances. Ms. Rice is counting heavily on women turning out for the chance to make her the first female to hold statewide office, and another male cuts into Mr. Schneiderman’s support. But at the same time, Mr. Coffey, a former Navy captain, is making a play for moderate, white ethnic and suburban voters that Ms. Rice needs. He is the lone candidate to call for a property-tax cap, something beloved by suburbanites but anathema to New York City liberals.

As the eight-month-old race enters its final days, the winner remains a toss-up. A poll published last week shows that 85 percent of Democrats are undecided. Ms. Rice has money and the support of much of the party establishment, and is an Albany outsider in a year in which voters prefer bedbugs to incumbents. Democrats throughout the state are likely to be touched by the Ms. Rice campaign–television ads, direct mail, street sign wavers–twice as often as they will be by Mr. Schneiderman. But even if Ms. Rice is leading in the polls on the day before the election, Mr. Schneiderman’s camp thinks that its turnout operation–fueled by labor unions and activists–will mobilize enough voters to provide him with the margin of victory.

Only around 600,000 registered Democrats are expected to vote, and 60 percent of that vote is supposed to come from the Schneiderman stronghold of New York City. His campaign is also counting on something many have overlooked: a series of heated primaries in the city that could be one of the few things to bring voters to the polls. Charlie Rangel is in five-way fight in Harlem, a district that overlaps with Mr. Schneiderman’s State Senate seat, and regardless of who voters there choose to send to Washington, most will vote for Mr. Schneiderman. Carolyn Maloney is fighting off a fierce challenge on the Upper East Side, in a district where 6 percent of the turnout in the 2006 attorney general’s race came from even without a contested Congressional primary. There are a handful of State Senate races in black and Latino neighborhoods around the city, including Mr. Schneiderman’s own in Washington Heights. And there are no serious primary fights on Long Island.

Still, the next six days are likely to be long for all five candidates.

Voters, back from summer vacation, are only now tuning in. Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who has a handful of major labor endorsements himself, could chip away at Mr. Schneiderman’s totals. Expect an onslaught of ads and press conferences that dredge up Mr. Schneiderman’s record and paint him as too soft on crime for the state’s voters. Ms. Rice still leads in the polls.

Something fluky, like, say, a hit-and-run accident involving a TV producer’s car could be in the offing. And who knows, maybe, just maybe, Andrew Cuomo will step up and say something about it.

dfreedlander@observer.com