Cuomo’s Gambit

Photo: Shareif Ziyadat/FilmMagic (Paterson); Patrick McMullan (Cuomo)

New York Democrats had hoped this fall would unfold like a Kabuki play. With Attorney General Andrew Cuomo keeping a polite distance, party elders would persuade Governor Paterson to accede to the popular will (last week, a poll showed him losing to Cuomo by a margin of four to one) and plot a dignified exit for him. In coordination with the White House, the governor would be offered an ambassadorship or some other prestigious posting. Paterson would yield to reason, cancel his campaign, and bask in the gratitude of his party. Or so the thinking went.

The problem is that Paterson doesn’t appear to be willing to play that role. His allies point out that things aren’t so conclusive, comparing him to New Jersey’s Jon Corzine and other governors. “You look at any incumbent’s polls, and they’re not doing well. He’s not that different from Corzine,” says Jay Jacobs, the governor’s pick for new state party leader. “Incumbents have to deliver the bad news. Other elected officials don’t have to do that. He doesn’t have the luxury of jumping in on the positive stuff.” Besides, the Paterson camp finds Cuomo’s supporters presumptuous. “The Cuomo play is both pushing him and coaxing him out of the race through fear or otherwise,” says a Paterson ally. “The governor has been the recipient of a fairly continuous, concerted effort to undermine him, to keep him on the ropes, to keep his poll numbers down.”

Which means the coming months could be far from dignified. It’s one thing to privately pledge allegiance to Cuomo; it’s another to declare war on a sitting governor, who writes the budget, vetoes laws, and oversees state agencies. “Everyone is scared how he can screw them, and that’s why they’re tentative to act,” says a lawmaker.

But for Democrats, even more terrifying is the prospect of a Cuomo-Paterson primary. No one doubts that Cuomo would trample Paterson. But at what cost? What worries Democrats is a replay of the 2001 mayor’s race, when Mark Green lost to Michael Bloomberg after a racially divisive primary against Freddy Ferrer. “If Cuomo prevails, it would be a classic definition of a Pyrrhic victory,” says one black Democratic lawmaker. Especially with Rudy Giuliani in the wings.

“I’m not convinced that no matter how lopsided the polls are that Andrew Cuomo is going to challenge Paterson,” says Al Sharpton. “I don’t think Andrew Cuomo wants to disrupt the party, and a primary could be a disruptive process that would lead to a Republican victory. People will have to take sides. Those sides could become very hardened and polarized. Then you have to try to heal and go up against what could be a formidable Republican. I don’t think Andrew wants to do that.” This despite the fact that Cuomo leads Paterson by 21 points among blacks.

Cuomo’s strategy is to wait while the party’s leadership turns the screws on Paterson. “There’s no rush on Cuomo’s side,” says a supporter. Democrats backing Cuomo don’t want to push Paterson out. Instead, their aim remains to convince him that he’s got more to lose by refusing to quit.

Lawmakers say Paterson may be confronted by black-caucus members of the Senate and Assembly. “It is important for us to see some significant turnaround in the order of ten to fifteen points, so there’s a basis to conclude that he can win,” says one black state lawmaker. “He has never, though through no fault of his own, demonstrated the ability to convince the electorate that he should hold the governorship.”

Says the lawmaker: “Folks are less concerned that you have a black governor for the sake of a black governor. We have a black president. Paterson will be compared to the Obama standard of competence, eloquence, and governance. And if you were to make that comparison right now, he’s failed.”

In the meantime, Cuomo has been busy tightening his relationships with state Democrats. Lawmakers have noticed how rapidly he returns their calls. Labor groups have been impressed with his responsiveness. And he’s hoping Paterson comes around. “Honestly,” says one Cuomo ally, “I’m not sure I get what Paterson’s game plan is.”

Cuomo’s Gambit