An enigmatic governor

MARCI MCDONALD November 10 1986

An enigmatic governor

MARCI MCDONALD November 10 1986

An enigmatic governor


The life-sized cardboard cutout of New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo was a constant companion of his Republican rival Andrew O’Rourke. On television ads, campaigning on Long Island commuter trains or even flying into Washington to drum up financial support, O’Rourke doggedly carted along the six-foot dummy as a symbol of Cuomo’s persistent refusal—for most of the campaign—to accept his debating challenge. But, as with so many other events in the recent race for the governorship of New York State, Cuomo managed to turn the tactic to his advantage. Speaking to an audience of 700 fellow Italian Americans in New York in September, Cuomo injected a little levity into his normally sombre public image. “My aides told me they had good news and bad news,” he said. “The bad news was that Andrew O’Rourke was out debating a cardboard dummy of me. The good news is that the dummy won.”

Indeed, with a 70-per-cent approval rating as governor, a $10-million polit-

ical war chest and a string of recent legislative successes to his credit, Cuomo could afford the luxury of not only shrugging off his rival, but also of declining to engage in any formal campaigning until the final days before the Nov. 4 ballot. Still, pundits warned that this luxury might prove costly to

On the campaign trail, Cuomo seemed to dislike the kind of glad-handing that would be essential to a presidential race

him in the long run. They pointed out that Cuomo’s lofty detachment from the flesh pressing and pompoms of the last campaign could come back to haunt him if he decides to run for the presidency in 1988.

Indeed, shortly before the Nov. 4 vote, Cuomo finally gave in to criticism and agreed to two last-minute de-

bates with O’Rourke, one to be broadcast on public television only three days before the election. But by then his perceived arrogance had set a dangerous precedent. Even more serious, Cuomo’s noncampaign failed to build up the sort of political machinery that any White House hopeful must command to be assured a fighting chance. Said one Democratic .consultant: “If you look at this election as a dress rehearsal for 1988, Mario is in trouble.”

The question of Cuomo’s presidential aspirations was the main ingredient sustaining interest in a contest which otherwise had been the most uneventful of the races for 36 governorships in the U.S. midterm elections this week. Having failed to woo a candidate who would pose a serious threat to Cuomo —former secretary of state Henry Kissinger was one of those who declined—the Republican party appeared to have ignored O’Rourke. In fact, his campaign was notable mainly for its inability to capitalize on a single issue.

Cuomo also stood to gain from his record in Albany, the state capital. In his four years in office the state’s $1.8-billion deficit had been transformed into a $600-million surplus. In the process, Cuomo had also renovated dilapidated highways, streamlined medical-care payments for the poor and el-

derly, and established himself as a fiscal conservative by presiding over the biggest tax cut in the state’s history.

But the main criticism of his last term could count against him in a presidential race. Opponents claim that Cuomo is a mediocre administrator who cannot delegate responsibility and who trusts only one political aide—his son Andrew, 28, a brilliant, handsome lawyer who doubles as his father’s campaign manager and chief operative. Some observers compare their closeness to that of former president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. But Charles Peters, editor of the neoliberal Washington Monthly, says that Kennedy had close contacts across the country. Said Peters: “As far as I can see, Cuomo only trusts his son and that is just fatal if you want to be an effective president. It is Jimmy Carter all over again.”

Still, Cuomo remains one of the Democrats’ chief hopes in 1988—and their best-financed prospect. The party’s current front-runner, retiring Colorado Senator Gary Hart, is still paying off his $3 million in debts from the 1984 presidential primaries, which he eventually lost to Walter Mondale. Many observers also see Cuomo’s vision of the nation as a family—set forth in his electrifying address to the 1984 Democratic convention that cata-

pulted him to national prominence—as the logical expression of the party’s endangered liberal traditions.

While many observers accuse Cuomo of coyness because he has not yet announced his intentions for 1988, those who work closely with him say that he remains genuinely perplexed about which course to take. As his diaries, published in 1984, show, he is ruthlessly honest with himself—and aware of his shortcomings. Last January Cuomo lashed out publicly at one of his chief obstacles to the presidency. He attacked “ethnic slurs” from Democratic officials who said that, as an Italian, he could never win the support of Southern or Western voters. One 1984 Democratic candidate, Jesse Jackson, hailed him for squaring off against the question publicly, but some critics saw it as yet another example of Cuomo’s mercurial temper and thin skin. Indeed, his sensitivity to a slight has left Cuomo—rated by Democratic media consultant Robert Squier as the most charismatic TV presence of all the 1988 presidential hopefuls—with a testy relationship with the press.

As well, in an age when abortion has become an explosive litmus-test issue for many voters, Cuomo’s deep-rooted Catholicism may prove to be a stumbling block. Although personally opposing abortion, he has argued that he would never force his views on others. That position has embroiled Cuomo in a debate with New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor. In September, 1985, Cuomo launched a protracted debate with the church over Roman Catholic politicians’ right to dissent from the church’s teachings.

Despite leading a successful fight for states’ tax rights against the Reagan administration’s tax reform bill, Cuomo also remains significantly untested on the national political stage. And although the governor privately studies foreign policy issues, he has travelled outside of the United States only twice in his lifetime—once on his honeymoon and once on a five-day visit to Rome.

But it is Cuomo’s own enigmatic character which may ultimately keep him from making the leap from the Albany statehouse to the White House, as Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did before him. Despite his rivetting performances on the campaign trail, Cuomo appears to dislike the kind of glad-handing that would be essential to a presidential race. As he reflected in his diary three years ago: “Has anything ever been so useless as the momentary acclaim of a world that does not know you, no matter how public?”