Loser Takes All

This week, the state’s Democrats convene to begin the process of choosing who will eventually go up against George Pataki. Relevant trivia question: Not counting those who were already incumbents – e.g., Mario Cuomo in 1986 and 1990 – who was the last candidate to win a majority of the state convention’s votes and then actually go on to become the governor?

Answer: Averill Harriman, in 1954.

Only two nonincumbent Democratic candidates have become governor since then – Hugh Carey in 1974 and Mario Cuomo in 1982 – and both of them had finished second at their conventions, Carey to Howard Samuels and Cuomo to Ed Koch. And even Harriman doesn’t really count, because the system was closed back then – Harriman had Carmine DeSapio’s backing, which sealed the deal in those days. His opponent, for those of you who really want to know, was a fellow named Franklin D. Roosevelt. Junior. He had the support of his mother.

Winning the state convention has hardly been a ticket to Albany. And that is a problem – an expression of the problem – facing Comptroller Carl McCall. For this will be, chiefly, McCall’s convention. Andrew Cuomo will bag at least the 25 percent of the weighted vote a candidate needs to secure a spot on the September 10 primary ballot. But McCall will get more votes than Cuomo. The question is, what does winning this prize have to do with getting the job?It’s an interesting – and so far unremarked-upon – irony of their facing each other that, arguably, neither would be in the position to run were it not for past help from people now very fervently in the other guy’s camp. When Republican state comptroller Ned Regan resigned in 1993, it was then-governor Mario Cuomo who backed Carl McCall to fill the post. McCall was subsequently elected, twice, on his own strength, but if Mario hadn’t tapped his shoulder in 1993, he very well might not be where he is now.

Likewise, when Henry Cisneros left as Bill Clinton’s hud secretary in 1996, Al Gore was pushing Andrew Cuomo on Clinton, whose choice boiled down to Cuomo and former Seattle mayor Norm Rice. Charlie Rangel and Bill Lynch – today, McCall’s mentor and one of his chief strategists, respectively – made calls to lobby for Cuomo. “Gore said he wasn’t getting anywhere with Clinton, and I could make a difference,” Rangel says. The Cuomo people dispute (natch; they’re a disputatious bunch) the idea that Rangel and Lynch played a determinative role, but their support for their fellow New Yorker over their fellow African-American (Rice) couldn’t have hurt, and the Cabinet position was the launching pad for this run.

The similarity ends there, because their campaigns thus far make for a contrast as stark as I’ve ever seen in a New York primary. You could call it insider (McCall) versus outsider (Cuomo). But it’s more than that. It’s conceptual. It’s about why and how a person should run.

Emotionally, McCall’s “why” boils down to “Because it’s my turn.” Ask him his rationale for running, as I did recently, and he takes some whacks at George Pataki, but mostly, it’s like this: “I have the necessary experience, qualifications, and track record to provide the leadership that we need to go forward. And I’ve got a track record of having been elected, and the broad support that’s necessary to win. And I want to stress the broad, diverse support. I’ve got it. And that’s how I win.”

That “why” also informs his “how”: Line up the official support, which he’s been doing for two years. There was a time there when I was getting three or four e-mails a day: TOMPKINS DEMS BACK MCCALL, WESTCHESTER UNITED BEHIND MCCALL. He has the county organizations, the local “electeds,” the big cheeses (Sheldon Silver, Eliot Spitzer).

And that’s a great way to win a convention. But history tells us it’s not much of a way to win an election. When you talk to McCall supporters, you hear a lot about how McCall is better “qualified” (did Pataki, a one-term state senator, have great qualifications?) and has earned this shot and how “Andy” – a belittling diminutive first disseminated by McCall consultant Hank Sheinkopf – is cutting in line and threatening a racial donnybrook; what you don’t hear from them is much about beating George Pataki. Recently, I spoke with both Rangel and another New York congressman, Gregory Meeks, two of McCall’s chief backers. My notes don’t reflect that either even mentioned Pataki.

Cuomo and his people, by contrast, can speak of nothing else, and Cuomo’s “why” and “how” are both bound up in his ego (of which he has no shortage) and his conviction that he will be a great governor. And not later. Now. “For the past eight years, life was good,” he says. “The economy was good. And so New York state government faded into the shadows. There was less of a perceived need. At the local level – Giuliani – you needed more action. But not at the state level. And that’s what Pataki did. A passive government that receded into the shadows. After 9/11, that passive stance doesn’t work anymore. You need change. And I am the agent for that. I think that is the macro frame for this race.”

When he says he will do something – last week, in a speech on downtown redevelopment, he talked about creating a council that he personally would head to see to it that lower Manhattan is rebuilt in five years – you get the feeling not merely that he will do it but that he will pulverize the luckless soul who gets in the way of his doing it. He is a man whose campaign pledges can sometimes sound less like promises than threats.

Cuomo’s rationale is precisely that it is not his turn. Or at least that he doesn’t care about turns. “I want to win the governorship this year,” says Steve Pigeon, the Erie County leader who has endorsed Cuomo. “All this ‘It’s Carl’s turn’ stuff, that works if you’re talking about the Moose Lodge. But you don’t pick a governor that way. These guys who are saying ‘Let Andrew run in four years’ are almost admitting that Carl’s not going to win.”

So Cuomo is most definitely cutting in line. In doing so, he forces confrontations – stylistic, generational, and, of course, racial. But whatever you think of him, he’s campaigning for the job. It sometimes feels like McCall is campaigning for a lifetime achievement award.

Pataki looks invulnerable now. He is not. But defeating an incumbent governor, especially one whom nobody particularly dislikes, is one of the hardest jobs in politics. It can be done only by a candidate who develops an intellectual framework – through ideas, arguments, and a little soupçon of poetry. It isn’t done, as various Democrats have learned over the years to their chagrin, by going with the percentages.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Loser Takes All