How Andrew Cuomo Lost

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Gosh, New York sure has learned a lot about Carl Paladino. That he’s mad as hell at wasteful government spending and the corrupt political Establishment—but that his upstate real-estate company takes full advantage of state tax breaks. That he thinks federal health-care reform is as great an assault on the Constitution as the September 11 terrorist attacks. That he enjoys the stuffed banana peppers at Sinatra’s restaurant in Buffalo, as well as forwarding photos of horse-on-girl action. That he hates Fred Dicker, taxes, and the Toronto Gay Pride parade—but definitely not gays.

All of that information has helped sell a few newspapers; it might even push a few more voters into their newly computerized, just-as-screwed-up polling places next month. But for anyone who cares about how New York is going to wrestle with its chronic, multi-billion-dollar budget deficits or create jobs or educate schoolkids, well, the bottomless attention to the sayings of “Crazy Carl” has been a colossal waste of time. Fortunately—and largely by accident—the stupidest governor’s race in state history has also taught us a few things about the other guy. You know, the one who is actually going to become governor.

Andrew Cuomo was solidly ahead in the polls, but taking the high road was making him anxious. Paladino had been taunting Cuomo for days, questioning his manhood, slagging his father the former governor. These weren’t the rules of engagement he’d been expecting. “If a guy says you have no cojones, how do you punch him back, call him an asshole?” Cuomo asked his top aides. “We have all this stuff [on Paladino] and we’re on the defensive.” The rare inside look at the tightly controlled Cuomo campaign was a major score for the Daily News, which splashed the story across its front page. The irony is in how the campaign’s military-level secrecy was punctured: During the meeting, a Cuomo aide accidentally dialed reporter Ken Lovett on his cell phone and left the line open.

A day later came unsettling news: a Quinnipiac University poll showing Paladino surging to within six points of Cuomo. “Nobody on the inside took the Q poll serious,” a Democratic adviser says. “Nevertheless, the hype was out there and created its own reality. Lazio ignored this guy and got crushed. So Andrew immediately called a press conference and mentioned Paladino by name.”

But that’s pretty much all Cuomo’s done this campaign season. He parried gently, then adopted an incumbent’s strategy, talking about issues but in uncontroversial terms. He’d worked resolutely to bury his old image as a bully, and he wasn’t going to revive it now. “Andrew’s real opponent all along has been Andrew,” a Democratic consultant says. “The only guy that can defeat Andrew Cuomo is Andrew Cuomo. And he’s not going to let that happen again. He wants to be governor and nothing will stand in his way—nothing that he can control.”

Which is why Cuomo looks so rattled when anything slips out of his grasp. Five days after the surprisingly tight poll numbers, Cuomo went to Harlem for a bit of classic base-solidifying retail campaigning, planning to shake hands at a St. Nicholas Avenue subway entrance on a Monday morning. Instead, he was greeted by about a dozen chanting supporters of Charles Barron, the city councilman who’s running as the Freedom Party candidate for governor.

Cuomo’s history with black pols is fraught. In 2001, he jumped the Democratic line to challenge Carl McCall in the gubernatorial primary, and Charlie Rangel was still invoking that affront nine years later when Governor David Paterson’s political career was crumbling and Cuomo was circling. All those machinations seemed to be flashing behind Cuomo’s eyes as he marched down 125th Street looking uncomfortable. He smiled stiffly at a few bewildered schoolchildren, cut short the walkabout, then ducked into a community center, shielded by Keith Wright, Harlem’s state assemblyman and leader of Manhattan’s Democratic Party.

Since that rainy, unpredictable morning in Harlem, Cuomo’s public appearances have been carefully staged to limit spontaneity. “He thinks, So I’ll win only 60-40 instead of 70-30, and I’ll still be governor,” a Democratic strategist says. “Why should I take any more risks if I don’t have to? The one time he took a big risk in his life, running against McCall, it bit him in the ass, big-time.”

Behind the scenes, though, his campaign has been plenty active. “One option was allowing Paladino to fall apart on his own, and some people suggested that at the beginning, because he did seem a little unhinged,” a Cuomo adviser says. But there were no guarantees, of course, so Cuomo’s camp made sure that Paladino’s record and beliefs were circulated. “An awful lot was done to make sure that people were hearing some of what Paladino was saying,” the adviser says. “Maybe not directly from the campaign, but you heard a lot of voices calling in to question him on the fitness and character issue.” And as it turned out, there was plenty to work with.

It’s been difficult to hear between the spasms of hate speech, but Paladino has at times offered a cogent critique of state government. And stranger still is that Cuomo often seems as if he were going out of his way to prove Paladino’s point about New York politics’ being a rigged game played by the same old insiders. One Saturday morning Cuomo checks the “Latino” box by arranging an hour-long meeting with current and former Hispanic elected officials in the East Village. The next week he’s on the front steps of a White Plains arena to accept an abortion-rights endorsement. Many of the “ordinary” women in pink T-shirts surrounding Cuomo were bused in the night before by Planned Parenthood. In between comes an endorsement by former mayor Ed Koch—who, in a universe far, far away, furiously accused a Mario Cuomo campaign of using gay slurs against him (an accusation always denied by Mario and Andrew). Now Koch can’t be more effusive about his old adversary Andrew. “I’m proud to call him friend,” Koch gushes. “His father was a great governor, and I believe there’s a certain nobility in carrying on that tradition.”

Cuomo prides himself on being more of a realist than his father, but he speaks of government with some of the same reverence, as if elected office were a higher calling instead of simply a means to deliver services. “I work very hard not to demean politics, not to degrade politics,” he says. Last summer, Cuomo talked at great length about rallying ordinary citizens to his side by collecting “pledges” of support for five core ideas, including ethics reform and a property-tax cap. His theory: When he arrives in Albany as governor in January, Cuomo can show state legislators all the pledges he’s amassed in their district, and they’ll have no choice but to heed the wishes of their constituents. Yes, it was a corny idea at best, and a gimmick at worst. But at least it was a gesture toward substance and participatory democracy. Talk of the pledges has disappeared this fall; instead, Cuomo has retreated to the time-honored interest-group panderfest. And his “New NY Agenda” runs hundreds of pages while nimbly avoiding specific, painful budget commitments.

No doubt the Rose Garden strategy is the right one to get him elected. Paladino has also done him a favor: By lobbing unsupported allegations about Cuomo’s private life, he’s made the calculating Cuomo look sympathetic. But there’s a cost to playing it safe. Cuomo is missing out on the opportunity to address the pervasive anxiety in New York’s electorate and make a principled emotional connection with the politically disaffected. He could have conducted town-hall meetings across the state, or run an imaginative series of TV ads laying out his ideas, or wangled truly meaningful pledges—from some of the public-employee unions that have endorsed his candidacy—or even sat down for some extended on-the-record interviews.

Last week, Cuomo visited homeowners in Rockland and Nassau counties to talk up his property-tax-cap plan, the kind of thing that could eventually help him with suburban legislators. Yet even if he ramps up his informal interactions with voters as Election Day nears, the reality is that he’s the ultimate insider. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He knows how the capital works, which backs to scratch, and where bodies are buried. Andrew Cuomo didn’t defeat Andrew Cuomo this fall—but he should know that next year he can’t defeat Albany by playing it safe.


How Andrew Cuomo Lost