Cuomo takes on ethnicity issue, but experts say it's negligible

In the political game, what's in a name? Do Americans vote as readily for politicians with Italian-sounding names or German-sounding names or Asian names as they do for French names or English names?

What if the name happens to be Mario Cuomo?

Mr. Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, jousted recently with reporters, and with Vice-President George Bush, over the issue of ``ethnicity'' in American politics.

Cuomo's ire was triggered by columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, no fans of the governor, who pooh-poohed his prospects in the 1988 presidential race partly because of his ethnic background. His parents were Italian immigrants.

Evans and Novak quoted a Deep South politician who said ominously that ``there are no Cuomos'' and ``few Marios'' in Dixie.

``It was silly and wrong'' to assert that ethnic Americans cannot be elected to the White House, the governor told a group of reporters over lunch here the other day. ``Ethnicity is not a substantial problem.''

Yet ethnicity has long been a serious factor in American politics, even if it is now fading.

Political analyst Richard Scammon long kept a United States map on his wall that showed where the ``un-Kennedy vote'' was in 1960. The un-Kennedy vote might also be called the ``anti-Roman Catholic, anti-Irish-American vote.''

Mr. Scammon's map highlighted counties where anti-Catholic votes had given a big boost to Republican Richard Nixon. The key areas were the Southern, Protestant Bible Belt, as well as southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, central Pennsylvania, and the central valley of California, to which settlers moved from Arkansas and Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Today, that kind of ``anti'' voting has mostly disappeared, says Scammon, although there is still some anti-black voting.

Political scholar Austin Ranney of the American Enterprise Institute agrees.

Ethnic factors were ``very, very important indeed up to the time of the New Deal,'' says Dr. Ranney. But then ``economics and class issues, rather than issues like ethnic identity'' began to motivate voters.

Scammon points to Cuomo himself for a kind of proof-in-reverse that bias is receding.

In 1982, Cuomo won a bare majority, 51 percent, of the Italian-American vote in New York against a conservative Republican Jewish opponent, who got 49 percent of the Italian-American vote. If ethnicity were a key factor, Cuomo should have swept the Italian-American vote.

Then in 1984, President Reagan took a majority of the Italian-American women's vote against Walter Mondale and his Italian-American woman running-mate, Geraldine Ferraro.

Experts say ethnicity gets less important every year.

Scammon asks: Who in America voted for or against Spiro Agnew (whose immigrant father had changed his name from Anagnostopoulos) in 1968 because he was a Greek-American? Or in California, for or against George Deukmejian for governor because he's an Armenian-American?

``I don't believe that the ethnic factor hurts any more,'' says Scammon. ``I never heard of any attack on Agnew because he was a Greek, or [Edmund] Muskie because he was a Pole. And as for the Italians -- first, they've been here longer than either the Greeks or the Poles; and second, there are more of them. So I don't think it would do Cuomo any harm.''

Vice-President Bush kept the issue bubbling for a time by ripping Cuomo's comments on ethnicity for promoting ``the same old destructive policies of divisiveness and resentment.''

Mr. Bush said of Cuomo: ``He's telling us to ignore the millions of blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians, Latins, and Poles who shattered the bonds of discrimination.''

Cuomo retorted, however, that those who have criticized his comments didn't understand the background. It all began about a year ago, he said. One writer after another, mostly ``conservative or Republican-leaning columnists,'' began raising questions about Cuomo's ethnic roots.

Cuomo said: ``I'll give you an example of some of them: . . . `He looks like a character out of the Godfather.' `To see him is to hear the Godfather music in the background.' `One of his problems is, he has a lot of Italian traits.' `He has close family instincts.' `He trusts the people in his family, but not beyond.' `A psychologist would tell you that these Italian characteristics make him charming, but not good for governance.' ''

Cuomo says some political reporters were looking at all this commentary and concluding: ``Ah-ha, now you're talking about Mafia. . . . This is going to be [Cuomo's] vulnerability, this is your ethnic problem. . . .

``My feeling was, now is the moment to respond, and I'm glad I did. It worked well.''

Scammon agrees that Cuomo was shrewd to bring up the ethnic issue early and dispose of it, especially if the governor plans to run in 1988.

John F. Kennedy similarly addressed the Roman Catholic issue early and mitigated it.

As for 1988, Cuomo reasserted that he isn't running for the White House.

If people are going to speculate on his political future, Cuomo says, it should be on the basis of substantive things, such as charges that he's ``a mushy-headed liberal from the Northeast.''

Scammon agrees:

``If Cuomo is nominated and loses the election, he's going to lose because he's a liberal from New York, not because he is an Italian-American.''

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