The weight of the Democrats’ debacle falls next on Andrew Cuomo, a white Democrat who is running against Carl McCall, a black Democrat, in the primary for governor.
Two days after the Green defeat – “the 9/11 of the Democratic Party,” says Cuomo – and a day after the state Democratic chairman, Judith Hope, called for one of the two Democrats to drop out of the race, Cuomo, behind the wheel of an SUV, is heading up to Sylvia’s in Harlem to begin to “heal the rift” at a meeting he’s organized.
Not only is Cuomo a white Democrat, he also runs a high risk of being grouped with the yuppie, technocrat Dems like Green and Al Gore – “the white guys who can’t connect,” says Cuomo.
Part of his personal strategizing for bridging, if not healing, the rift is to be a Clinton Democrat – or an embracing one. “Nobody ever accused Clinton of being a yuppie or an out-of-touch white guy. It’s the hug test. If I hug one of these guys and he tightens up, I know he doesn’t have it. I’m Italian. I’m from Hollis, Queens. There’s a communication rift and I can cross it. I can touch.”
Dealing with the other parts of the rift, the inexorable rise of Al Sharpton and the emergence of ethnic power barons like Roberto Ramirez, who may not be entirely loyal to the Democratic Party, is more complicated. “You tell me why Freddy Ferrer was at Bloomberg’s breakfast table the next day,” Cuomo says.
At Sylvia’s, Russell Simmons, the hip-hop entrepreneur who’s also from Hollis, Queens, and a key member of Cuomo’s posse, is running late. (“Russell is more influential than Sharpton,” says Cuomo – although that influence may be greater on Lafayette Street than in Harlem.)
Cuomo enters the restaurant when an aide reports that there are now 50 people in the room, including Cuomo’s wife, Kerri Kennedy Cuomo, and his mother, Matilda. A heal-the-rift evening is also a press-the-flesh event. In some sense, it’s not a true heal-the-rift gathering, because the leaders here – Adam Clayton Powell IV, Assemblywoman Vivian Cook, district leader Theresa Freeman among them – are a pro-Green, anti-Sharpton crowd. Though how anti-Sharpton is an obvious issue.
“Is Sharpton as powerful as he thinks he is?” Cuomo prompts Ron Lester, a community pollster.
“He grows in stature with every election,” says Lester, with what hardly seems like criticism. “He’s not worried about being a good Democrat. He’s concerned with bringing something back to his constituents.”
There is a lot of talk about the “rift” and about the “unfortunate events” and the “terrible day” (that is, Election Day) and about “ego,” but not, it seems, a lot of blame for Sharpton. “Dealing with Reverend” is how the issue seems to be precisely phrased.
Cuomo’s evident way of dealing is with total confidence in the most traditional way. With robust enthusiasm, he makes de rigueur Democratic-sixties-liberal-Kennedy-Cuomo remarks (this follows his wife reciting a Langston Hughes poem): ” ‘Judge me,’ the Reverend King said, ‘on the content of my character and not the color of my skin.’ ” (Interestingly, it seems unclear whose character and whose color is at issue.).
It’s heal-the-rift talk. But at the end of the day, it’s where “Reverend” see the rift, and how he negotiates it. The idea that Sharpton supports McCall because he is black is not, Cuomo clearly feels, the savviest way to view the new world.
The real poetry here, it seems, is the passion and subtlety with which people try to read Sharpton’s mind, to plot and counterplot against Sharpton’s moves.
“What’s the McCall advantage for him?” asks Cuomo. “McCall is old news. Sharpton is about new power. Why would Sharpton want to strengthen the people whose power he’s taken?”
Simultaneously, Cuomo is offering a Behind the Music-type remembrance of Meade Esposito and Donald Manes. It’s old-fashioned, pre-Rudy, clubhouse politics. Black-brown, he believes, possibly with some relief, is just the cover.
“It’s about the compensation package,” says Cuomo. “My job is not to pay too much.”