In the end, Andrew Cuomo had nothing to gain by keeping his gubernatorial campaign alive another day. And judging by comments from people inside his campaign and the New York state Democratic Party, he doesn’t have a lot to look forward to, either.
In every statewide poll the former Clinton Administration Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was facing defeat by double digits against state Comptroller Carl McCall. Most polls, even Cuomo’s own internal surveys, had the former golden boy losing to McCall by better than 20 percent.
“We’ve known for weeks it was going to be bad,” says a now-former Cuomo campaign staffer. “Still, it was brutal seeing him swallow his pride and ask for some face-saving gesture from McCall’s people.”
There would have been a lot less brutality had Cuomo given up earlier on his doomed-to-fail attempt to knock McCall out in the primary vote in order to face seemingly unbeatable Gov. George Pataki. “Andrew got some very bad advice from his people,” says the campaign staffer. “When the party supported McCall, Andrew should have walked away. Instead he tried to street-brawl his way to a nomination that he couldn’t have won. He took on the Democratic establishment and learned his lesson.”
The conventional wisdom will be that Cuomo walked away from an unwinnable primary fight, beaten and bloodied, but in position to be the frontrunner four years from now when Pataki’s run as governor is perhaps over. “If McCall loses badly in November, Cuomo can say, ‘See? I could have fared better,’” says a New York City-based Democratic political consultant. “And believe me, Cuomo will be saying that. He can’t help himself. But I don’t know that in four years he is the frontrunner. He hasn’t earned squat as far as I’m concerned. He’s still holding his father’s coat, to borrow a phrase.”
To add insult to injury, the McCall campaign refused to go along with any of the demands Cuomo attempted to impose on it for stepping aside. He asked for a high profile position in the McCall campaign in the fall. That was nixed. He asked for promises of a high profile political appointment in a McCall administration. That, too, was nixed. He asked that McCall be present at his press conference. Nope. His people asked for final approval of any press release McCall might put out upon Cuomo’s stepping aside. No way.
And who was knocking down all of those demands? According to another Cuomo campaign source, former president Bill Clinton, Cuomo’s old boss, was the bearer of much of the bad news. “If Clinton didn’t tell him personally, it was clear to all of us that Clinton was a go-between. He was doing McCall’s bidding,” says the Cuomo aide. “That was the worst part. Having Clinton front and center on this thing.”
As the Prowler noted last April 22, Clinton was lending McCall an ear and probably dishing out political advice at a torrid pace well before McCall’s victory at the New York State Democratic convention in late May. And while Clinton never came out to publicly endorse McCall, it was obvious by his lack of backing of Cuomo early on which horse he was betting on.
But several McCall campaign sources dispute the Cuomo campaign’s contention that Clinton was the intermediary between the two camps. “There were a lot of people involved in this thing, making it bloodless,” says a McCall staffer. “Clinton may have spoken to Cuomo and may have spoken to Carl, but it wasn’t like he was the messenger. This is a former president we’re talking about here. Other people did the heavy lifting.”
Clinton may not have been dialing the numbers and conferencing everyone in, but both his and his wife Hillary’s actions in the past five days made it obvious to Cuomo and his camp that his campaign was swimming with the fishes. First, there was Bill and Hill’s appearance in Syracuse late last week at the state fair, where Cuomo was also appearing. Despite Cuomo’s attempts to hook up with either of the Clintons, neither would get within photo-op range of him. “We asked, we practically begged for a ‘chance’ meeting, and the Clinton people just refused,” says one Cuomo advance staffer.
Then, over the Labor Day weekend, Hillary appeared with McCall at a neighborhood parade in New York City. “That was it,” says the Cuomo staffer. “When she walked with McCall in the driving rain, we knew it was time to pack it in. We had no one backing us. There was no Democratic mayor who owed Andrew’s dad a favor, no state pols we could strong-arm. Everyone was on McCall’s team.”
And Democratic Party observers say that just as interesting as Andrew Cuomo’s failure to rise to the challenge of a statewide race, is his father Mario’s seeming inability to help him. “This is a former governor, a man who is still connected in this state,” says a Democratic operative in Albany. “How does a guy have that much influence and not get his son past the primary? Neither man was popular inside the party at the end [of Gov. Cuomo’s administration], but I think many of us are surprised that the Cuomo family could do so little. It isn’t that time passed the family by. It’s that another family has moved into the neighborhood.”
Cuomos meet the Clintons. “They are in control of the state now,” says the Albany Dem. “The fact that Bill was such a visible part of Andrew’s demise sends a message loud and clear. If you’re a Democrat and want to succeed in this state, there’s one guy you have to win over first. And it isn’t Mario. And knowing that just has to be the worst.”
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