You remember the George W. Bush trick. Eight years after your father is humiliated in his re-election campaign, you run as an “outsider” to succeed the guy who defeated him. The failed Andrew Cuomo campaign was supposed to be the New York state version of that. George Pataki knocked out Mario Cuomo eight years ago. Andrew’s plan was to avenge his dad and restore the family dynasty.
But first, there was the little matter of the Democratic primary race, which Cuomo abandoned on Sept. 3. What went wrong? Part of the problem was the essential preposterousness of the son of Mario Cuomo, a Cabinet secretary to Bill Clinton and husband of Kerry Kennedy, trying to position himself as an “outsider” in a Democratic primary. In the debate I co-moderated last week in Manhattan, Cuomo played the role to the hilt.
But in a funny way, Andrew Cuomo really was the outsider in the race. Cuomo’s opponent was New York state Comptroller Carl McCall, 66, an agreeable but uninspiring veteran of state politics. With a long résumé but few notable achievements, McCall should have been vulnerable to an aggressive idea-driven politician 20 years his junior. But McCall has a political base in New York state and Cuomo had none. McCall is a veteran of New York politics with constituencies everywhere you turn. Since the ‘60s, he’s been part of the Harlem political machine of Charles Rangel, David Dinkins, and Percy Sutton. He began the race with favorite-son status in the black community, mobilized by the hope of electing the state’s first black governor. McCall’s “constituents” also include hundreds of thousands of state retirees, who tend to be pleased by the cost-of -living adjustment McCall pushed the legislature to pass in 2000.
McCall also has the backing of most major unions that took sides in this race, including the CSEA, which represents state employees, and of almost every elected Democrat in the state from Sen. Charles Schumer on down. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton backed McCall without endorsing him. On Monday, she marched with McCall in the West Indian American Day Parade, giving him what the New York Post called a “photo-op to die for.” Last week, Clinton and Cuomo happened to be attending the New York State Fair in Syracuse at the same time, and she made sure their paths did not cross for a photo op.
Andrew Cuomo, by contrast, has never had a constituency. As secretary of housing and urban development, the only constituents he had to keep happy were the president of the United States and congressional leaders who determined his budget. He was pretty good at pleasing those masters, by the way, getting a Republican Congress to substantially increase HUD’s budget instead of shutting the agency down. But that didn’t help him in New York state. The most prominent endorsements I could find on the Cuomo Web site were from the mayor of Mechanicville and the Democratic committees of Stillwater and Milton. Don’t feel bad. I don’t know where they are either, and I’ve lived in New York state almost all my life.
It was a bit pathetic to see someone so connected unable to win any significant endorsements. But that should have liberated Cuomo to take more daring positions. He might, for instance, have gone out on a limb and proposed a way to achieve statewide universal health care coverage, the way the governor next door, Vermont’s Howard Dean, has. He might have challenged the notoriously undemocratic New York state government, where most important decisions are made by “three men in a room,” as the Albany cliché has it. But beyond the “outsider” posturing, Cuomo never raised this as a serious issue. And given the state’s post-9/11 fiscal crisis, do New Yorkers really want the public employees’ union’s favorite politician as governor?
Instead of staking out bold positions on these and other issues, Cuomo’s strategy was to agree with McCall on everything and to try to convince voters he alone had the personality to get more results. Falling further and further behind in the polls, Cuomo’s only chance to win the primary was to go more and more negative against McCall, a strategy that probably would have failed anyway and even if it succeeded would have seriously alienated black voters, who Cuomo needs to have a future in New York politics. So, in an effort to salvage his career, he dropped out, with Bill Clinton (but not Hillary), Mario Cuomo, Rangel, and, weirdly, rap impresario Russell Simmons standing by his side at a press conference. Only when he was safely outside the governor’s campaign did the insiders love him again.
Brian Lehrer is host of The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, a public radio station in New York.