Buffalo enjoys a wealth of political landmarks. There’s a plaque marking the spot where an anarchist assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. Downtown is Chef’s, an old Italian restaurant where judges, cops, and reporters hang out. And in South Buffalo, there’s the ancestral home of Tim Russert.
At the end of May, the political tour map got an unlikely addition: a security checkpoint at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. On one side, the side where departing passengers were retying their shoes, stood Dilia Schack, an obscure Democratic district leader from Bay Ridge. On the other was an aide to Vito Lopez, a state assemblyman and, more important, the new boss of the Brooklyn Democratic organization. Schack was in town, along with hundreds of other Democrats, to attend the state-party nominating convention. The only real drama lay in the race between Andrew Cuomo and Mark Green to be designated the party’s choice for state attorney general.
For months, Cuomo had played a skillful inside game, acquiring the early backing of SEIU/1199, the mighty health-care union, and crisscrossing the state to chat up county leaders and local pols, selling himself as the new, humble Andrew. Cuomo entered the convention as the solid front-runner, and if he could hold Green and three other rivals under 25 percent, he’d be the only candidate on the September primary ballot. His father, ex-governor Mario Cuomo, shook hands and worked the phones. So did his mother, Matilda.
It all paid off: Cuomo was way ahead by the time Schack reached the airport. She’d decided to vote for Green but wanted to go home, so she left a proxy declaring her choice. Only problem: Her boss, Lopez, was mounting a full-court press to deliver every possible vote to Cuomo. Schack’s spot in the delegation depends on Lopez’s blessing, and her husband, Arthur, owes his State Supreme Court judgeship to the Brooklyn clubhouse. Lopez took over as Brooklyn leader in October after Clarence Norman Jr. was convicted on corruption charges, and the convention was Lopez’s first high-profile chance to demonstrate he knew how to wield a boss’s clout. “If you can’t deliver a vote, you don’t have an organization,” Lopez says. “It was very important that we come out stronger and more cohesive given the recent history in Brooklyn.”
According to Green, this included chasing down Schack. According to Lopez, “Someone called her—not me.” Schack isn’t talking. But Lopez’s chief of staff, Alison Hirsch, raced to the Buffalo airport. Boarding announcements blared. Schack’s flight was leaving soon. She leaned on a Transportation Security Administration desk and signed a new proxy, awarding her vote to Andrew Cuomo, and handed it back past the metal detector to Hirsch. Schack used a pen to sign the form. But she might have been holding one more nail in the coffin of Mark Green’s long electoral career.
“I’m doing much better than it appears,” says Green. “As they say of Wagner’s music, it’s better than it sounds.”
There is no shortage of people in New York politics who would be thrilled to help bury Green. Part of the contempt has been bred by familiarity: Green is waging his eleventh primary or general-election campaign in the past 25 years. He’s very smart and not shy about showing off his cleverness. Now the fact that the attorney general’s race may be his last realistic shot at higher office is stoking his unpleasant obsession with painting Cuomo as a bully.
Still, I kind of like the guy. There are parochial reasons: Green always returns phone calls, and he was once a regular contributor to this magazine. Plus, with the collapse of Bill Weld’s campaign and the increasing irrelevance of Tom Suozzi’s, Green versus Cuomo is this year’s final hope for entertaining political theater—part food fight, part ideological dispute, all of it fueled by both men’s desperate need for a redemptive victory.
More high-mindedly, I think it would be a shame if voters were denied a real choice in the primary race to succeed Eliot Spitzer. Thirty-six years after starting his public career as one of Nader’s Raiders, the 61-year-old Green retains his mentor’s idealistic zeal for protecting consumers, and he cares deeply about unsexy issues that affect thousands of people, like public disclosure of hospital error rates. He’s a lawyer, but what really makes Green a good fit for the attorney general’s job is his personality. He’s the kind of noodge that the job, and New York politics, needs.
Cuomo, 48, has learned well from his disastrous run for governor in 2002, when he alienated the state’s Democratic Establishment. This time he’s embraced it. “You’re right,” Cuomo says, laughing. “I did try to get people to vote for me. That’s called the nature of the business. That’s called a political campaign.” For all the Democratic tough talk about reforming Albany, the party’s leading candidates are still intimately tied to the same old special interests strangling the state capital, and to the city’s political bosses, especially in Brooklyn and Queens. “Labor unions represent middle-class working families,” Cuomo says. “These groups represent the people who I’m going to serve. I’m proud to stand with them.”
Polls taken before Cuomo’s decisive convention win put his lead over Green at everywhere from two to fourteen points. Green claims he’s confident he can make it a close contest in September—“I’m doing much better than it appears. As they said of Wagner’s music, it’s better than it sounds.” First, however, Green must try to get on the ballot by petitioning, an effort he started last week at a rally in Union Square, where he competed for attention with no-hope-Senate-candidate-of-conscience Jonathan Tasini. Green couldn’t resist floating the kind of innuendo that antagonizes his rivals, implying that because Cuomo has done real-estate business in Dubai, he somehow endorses the monarchy’s anti-Israel agenda.
The personal animus suffusing the attorney general’s race promises to keep things interesting. Four months ago, Vito Lopez underwent open-heart surgery, but last week he kept his doctor waiting so he could blast Green. “I wish I could be that magical, but some people switched votes because they saw which way the tide was running,” Lopez says. “If anyone was pressuring people at the convention, it was Mark Green. He needs to calm down. The real outrageousness in Buffalo was that Mark Green’s wife pushed someone, a person of significance and importance.” Lopez is referring to Emily Giske, a major lobbyist who is also, incredibly, a vice-chair of the state Democratic Party, as well as a staunch Cuomo backer. Green’s wife, Deni Frand, did angrily confront Giske, accusing her of spreading rumors that Green would quit the race. Giske denies rumormongering; Frand denies pushing anyone.
Would Mark Green be a better attorney general than Andrew Cuomo? I don’t know. But this battle is worth continuing. And Green, after a lifetime in Democratic politics, deserves to have his fate determined by actual voters, not insiders. Signing a Green petition in broad daylight would be the fitting democratic answer to the scribbled signature of a party hack fleeing Buffalo.