In N.Y., race still matters

Have the voters of New York "moved beyond race?" That's what supporters of former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo suggest. Mr. Cuomo is competing in the September 2002 Democratic primary for governor against New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who, if elected, would be New York's first black governor.

Cuomo and his advisers are telling reporters that the fact an African-American is running for governor doesn't mean as much to voters now as it might have in the past. "They are not interested in making an academic point, or a symbolic point," Cuomo says.

But before Andrew Cuomo starts to judge what black voters are "interested in," he might reread his father's 1982 speech to a black ministers' association, reprinted in Mario Cuomo's book "Diaries."

The elder Cuomo begins with a quote from Adam Clayton Powell: "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts or Whites who claim to understand Blacks."

Andrew Cuomo isn't being patronizing when he claims race won't be a factor in the primary election to run against Republican Gov. George Pataki. But he isn't being very smart either.

I can imagine the focus groups where they thought this one up: First, they might have tested how people felt about Mr. McCall's candidacy. Enthusiasm for this "symbolic" point probably went through the roof. The pollsters went back and huddled.

"Let's try them on old politics versus new politics," someone might have suggested. "Or the hip-hop artists who've endorsed us versus Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte."

Cooler heads prevailed. "I know," said a spin doctor. "We'll appeal to their better natures. Let's test substance versus symbolism. Quick, write this down: What's more important - electing someone who can help people in their lives or electing New York's first black governor?"

Now, perhaps the Cuomo campaign's research techniques weren't quite that crude, but the result is the same - a market-tested, "safe" campaign theme that's about as bland as a meal at McDonald's.

I've worked with McCall and heard his political story. It's an impressive one - raised by a single mother on welfare, one of eight African-Americans in his class at Dartmouth. An ordained Protestant minister, McCall served three terms as a state senator from Manhattan; was appointed by President Carter as US ambassador to the United Nations; worked on Wall Street as an executive and bank vice president; served as president of the New York City Board of Education; and was first elected comptroller in 1993. His wife, Joyce Brown, is a professor of clinical psychology and president of the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

Cuomo has an impressive record of his own. He managed his father's first campaign for governor and served for a year as a key aide to Governor Cuomo. After working as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, he practiced law and founded what became the nation's largest provider of transitional housing for the homeless. Cuomo was an energetic secretary of Housing and Urban Development, focusing on community planning, redevelopment, and homelessness. His wife, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, shares the passion of her late father, Robert Kennedy, for human rights, as an activist and author.

The excitement felt by McCall's supporters has been building for years. When former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked about a successor, upon announcing his retirement, he said, "I'm looking at you, Carl." But McCall declined to run, as did Andrew Cuomo, leaving the way clear for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Cuomo's critics charge he's too ambitious. He's a young man, they say, and should make his first race for office something other than a challenge to the more deserving McCall. But voters gave Senator Clinton, another novice candidate, a huge mandate. In politics, ambition is nothing to hide under a bushel.

But judgment is another thing. Cuomo is foolish to deny the historic nature of his opponent's candidacy. Weren't Jewish voters entitled to feel a special pride in Sen. Joseph Lieberman's candidacy for vice president? African-Americans and their supporters are similarly energized about McCall. And they know that winning the New York governorship has the potential to make him a credible presidential candidate someday.

Rather than try to peddle a flimsy line to voters, Cuomo would do better with some straight talk like this: "Is it exciting and important that McCall is running for governor? You bet it is. I just happen to think I'll be a better governor. Let me tell you why."

Instead, Cuomo is trying to shift the focus away from McCall, which is his right and duty as a candidate. It's what political consultants call a clever pivot - a first step toward a point that sounds sensible, and then a clever step away from the other guy and onto your own base of strength. For Cuomo, the play goes down like this: "Race doesn't matter, jobs matter, here's my jobs plan."

The only problem is that McCall will have a jobs plan, too.

Andrew Cuomo's message may be scrubbed, tested, and focus-grouped, but if he continues to dismiss as "symbolic" Carl McCall's career as a black political leader, voters who know better may tune him out.

William Klein is a political consultant and commentator.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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