If a Republican tsunami hits, Cuomo could be in trouble

Andrew Cuomo has a real dilemma. Team Andrew wanted the way to the governor’s mansion clear without a divisive primary that might destroy Democratic unity. Put another way, Cuomo will need every Democratic vote that he can get in what will clearly be a Republican year. With Paterson out of the way, the Cuomo people got what they wanted. Paterson even announced that he will campaign for Cuomo and the others on the Democratic ticket, which will help abate some potentially inconvenient electoral problems. For one thing, Paterson is black and Andrew has painful memories of what happened when he took on Carl McCall for the Democratic nomination in times past. He got his head handed to him for standing in the way of the man who might have been elected New York’s first black Governor. McCall himself, who had nothing good to say about Andrew for years, is now a supporter. I wonder who spoke to whom to make that right. Anyone think there might have been some promises secretly arrived at? Nah, couldn’t be!

Cuomo the younger has been playing it safe. He has not opened his mouth on the issues of the day. Before Paterson dropped out, he challenged Cuomo to offer his ideas about how to get the state out its massive fiscal mess. Andrew stayed shut and said only that he would continue to do his job as attorney general. That strategy seemed to work and his polling numbers stayed high, around 70 percent. That’s one of the reasons why the Democrats wanted him to lead the ticket in November. Many of them fought with Andrew in the past and don’t really care for him, but they sure didn’t want Paterson, with approval numbers hovering around 20 percent, as the top Democrat on the ballot. Getting people out to vote is always tough and even African-Americans were giving Paterson low ratings.

Unfortunately for him, something went wrong and Cuomo’s numbers have slipped dramatically. We don’t really know why this happened. He is still above 50 percent in the polls and still handily beats potential opponents, but if you were a fly on the wall listening to an imaginary conversation between Papa and Junior Cuomo, you had better believe that they are concerned. One possible explanation is that Paterson asked Cuomo to investigate various allegations against him and instead of immediately recusing himself as he should have done (because Paterson was a rival for the top job,) Andrew agreed to take on the obligation. People didn’t like that even though the always canny Paterson had asked him to do the job.

Andrew may also be slipping because when Paterson challenged him about how he would handle the state’s fiscal problems, Cuomo looked too “cute” in avoiding the question. He said he can’t think about it until after he investigates Paterson and Pedro Espada. That’s like the time Mario said he couldn’t run for president until he got the budget negotiated in New York. Nobody believed him. To make matters worse, after the latest round of poll numbers came out, Andrew seemed to panic and announced that he would finally recuse himself from the Paterson investigation. He appointed former Chief Judge Judith Kaye to do the investigation. Kaye, you might recall, was appointed to her job on the Court of Appeals by Papa Cuomo. Perception is everything and some African American voters may be ticked off by the perception that Cuomo did Paterson in.

When considering Cuomo’s dilemma, it is important to remember that Mario Cuomo was beaten in 1994, another Republican year, by George Pataki, a classic “Who-He?” Since all signs point to a Republican tsunami this year, Andrew Cuomo could be in trouble, particularly if his numbers continue to go down. Since he has punted on the Paterson investigation, it may look as if he’s scared and that doesn’t help him. Not only that, there is a big public opinion poll going around that seems to have been put out by Andrew. If he is just trying to find out what people want and then to give it to them, he may forfeit the impression that he is a leader and not just another politician. He still needs to tell us how to get out of the mess.

As the old saying goes, “Don’t count your chickens until you actually win the election.”

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/16/10

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