Over the past four years Mario Cuomo’s denials of interest in the Democratic presidential nomination have been unconvincing. Richard Nixon and Cuomo’s mother, Immaculata, were among those who doubted them. But last week in a series of telephone calls to reporters the New York governor made another attempt to disclaim any ambition to run for the White House this year. Said Cuomo in an interview with The New York Times “I closed the door in 1984.1 have spent four years placing padlocks on the door. Now I hope there are no questions left about my role.”
But there was enough confusion surrounding the governor’s statements to create even more speculation about his intentions. At the same time Cuomo was insisting that he would not accept a draft, his press secretary was issuing contrary statements, indicating that in fact he had not ruled out a draft.
Finally, at week’s end the governor’s declaration seemed to win acceptance. Now analysts say that Cuomo may attempt to become the divided party’s kingmaker. Said political scientist Edward Rogowsky, a pollster and head of Brooklyn College’s Urban Studies Program: “He very much wants to play a role in leading the party to reach a decision about its candidate before the convention in July.”
For many Democrats, Cuomo would have been an ideal presidential candidate. As the son of Italian immigrants, Cuomo could barely speak English until he started school. But he developed a facility with his second language that served him well both as a criminal lawyer and a politician. His first campaign for governor in 1982 against New York City’s Mayor Edward Koch was initially seen as a lost cause. But Cuomo’s brilliant speaking style played a major role in winning a surprise victory as governor in 1982. A compassionate and emotional speech to the 1984 Democratic party convention in San Francisco, which was
seen by millions on network television, brought Cuomo national acclaim. And his attractiveness as a potential presidential candidate was further enhanced by his 1986 re-election victory when he won 65 per cent of the vote.
When Cuomo announced in February, 1987, that he would not seek the nomination few observers seemed to believe him. Many Americans speculated that
he was waiting for a popular draft movement to develop. And many of his actions—including a trip to the Soviet Union and numerous journeys through the United States—appeared to be geared to a national audience.
But Democrats who wanted Cuomo to carry the Democratic standard tended to overlook a less attractive side of his political personality: his evident sensitivity to criticism, especially in the media. During his 1986 campaign the governor told reporters covering the election, “Most of you are incompetent—I believe that with all my heart.” He added that the media would have to shape up or “the Supreme Court will get you in the end.” Said Rogowsky: “There
is an angry, vengeful side to him. He is very facile with language and can be quick with a cutting remark. It may well be that he decided not to run because he understands his own limitations.”
At the same time, Cuomo’s record as governor has not always lived up to his rhetoric. He has often criticized President Ronald Reagan for cutting taxes while simultaneously curbing aid to the poor. But last year Cuomo approved the largest tax cut in New York’s history, depriving the state of funds that could have been used to make up shortfalls in social programs.
Stephen Hess, a political analyst with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, says that, although Cuomo has considerable clout among the Democrats, he probably will not be able to determine the party’s nominee. In fact, Cuomo had not endorsed any candidate for this week’s New York state primary and he urged other party leaders not to take sides until the last significant Democratic primaries in California and New Jersey on June 7. If no clear winner has emerged by that time, Cuomo has made it clear that he wants the party leaders to pick their candidate behind closed doors before July’s convention.
Cuomo clearly hopes that such a step would enable the party to appear united at the •convention. But Rogowsky said last week that that plan might be unsuccessful. “That’s a return to brokering in the old, smoke-filled rooms that no one can look into,” he said. “That doesn’t seem to me to be the direction American politics are heading.” Rogowsky added that a secret agreement might anger supporters of the losing candidates and further divide the party.
But at least one aspect of Cuomo’s political future seemed clear. Should the Democrats choose a candidate who is defeated this fall, the movement for Cuomo to carry the banner in 1992 would gain tremendous impetus.
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