03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Waiting Game

On Election Night 2009, New York City Democrats gathered at the Hilton in midtown Manhattan to celebrate Bill Thompson’s loss to Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

The party was raucous. The night went late as Thompson supporters waited for final results, stunned at how well their underdog candidate had done. The mood felt like a family reunion, with statewide officials like Comptroller Tom DiNapoli sharing the stage with first-term City Council members and Democrats slapping shoulders and pledging unity, progress, victory.

But no one gave a more fiery speech than Gov. David Paterson.

“I want to congratulate Bill for not giving up because of what the polls said, for not giving up because of what people thought, for not giving up on his city. When everybody else ran away from this fight, Bill Thompson stood his ground. To all Democrats—Fight! Regardless of the polls—Fight! Regardless of the chattering classes—Fight! Regardless of what people say—Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight for working people and don’t give up!”

Democrats behind Paterson on the lectern punched the air, shouted, clapped.

Andrew Cuomo, though, had spent the evening a few blocks away at the Sherry Netherland at a fundraiser hosted by supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis. Despite a perfunctory endorsement and retail walk through the Bronx with Thompson a few days earlier, where he deflected questions about the governor’s race by saying everyone should only focus on one race at a time, he was out of public view for the end of that race.

Nor was Cuomo behind Paterson the next week, when the governor addressed a joint session of the legislature, a speech in which Paterson subtly reminded voters that he was one of the first major officials in the country to sound the alarm about the economy falling apart.

Cuomo’s November was not completely empty, though. He held a telephone press conference about an antitrust lawsuit against Intel Corporation. He announced that three Oswego County men were going to jail after pleading guilty to installing faulty septic systems. He won a lawsuit against a Newburgh antique dealer accused of selling bogus jade carvings.

As 2010 looms ever closer, Cuomo finds himself with Democrats across the state urging him on and expressing tepid, at best, support for the governor. He finds himself with a 50-point lead over Paterson in a prospective primary. He has a double-digit lead over his nearest Republican rival. The most recent filing showed him with twice the money on hand as Paterson. He can spend his time playing the state’s top cop, catching financial frauds and Facebook fiends, until Paterson figures out that his time is up.

“He is in the perfect position,” says Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Carl McCall’s 2002 gubernatorial run when Cuomo challenged him for the nomination. “He can prepare for his own re-election, raise money, put an organization together and not get involved in any of the chaos in the Senate or with the budget.”

But as anyone who watched the premature demise of Eliot Spitzer and the presidential ambitions of Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton and Mike Bloomberg—along with the end of the Republican Senate majority, the Democratic Senate majority, the temporary return of the Republican Senate majority and, eventually, maybe, David Paterson—knows that crystal balls in the Empire State have a way of going haywire.

And so it is with Andrew Cuomo. He faces a governor determined to stay in office. He faces a party increasingly restive about its chances. He faces his own inner demons, and his own past. He faces a handful of pols who may not wait around for Cuomo to make his next move. And at some point, the man who appears to have gotten even the White House to join the chorus of people coronating him as the next nominee will have to begin running, facing all the hurdles that will come with that.

Yes, Andrew Cuomo is in the driver’s seat. But he is not in control.

The status quo has remained the same since the beginning of the year: Paterson has low approval ratings and struggles to find traction. Cuomo plays the top cop, and denies he has his sights set on anything else. Political players see Cuomo lurking though, and say it is only a matter of time before he comes out of the shadows.

But on January 15, when the next campaign finance filings go public, the game may be up.

“That is a bit of a precipice for the governor,” said Scott Levenson, a Democratic political consultant. “Everything is kind of held up until that point.”

Few are willing to say what kind of dollar figure vaults Cuomo past Paterson, or what keeps Paterson hanging around. Cuomo had twice as much on hand as of last summer; if that figure increases to three- or fourfold, most expect the voices calling for Paterson to step aside to grow much louder.

Paterson could have emerged by that point as the adult in the room, the one willing to stand up to the Senate and the special interests during the budget process. He already has had some people giving him credit.

“The governor, in our opinion, has done a good job,” said Jack Kittle, political director of DC 9, the painters’ union, who said that there was no guarantee his union would support a Democrat in 2010. “He’s handled a lot of the budget problems the way a governor should handle it, dealing with it in a real way and spreading the pain around.”

A well-managed campaign roll-out and a series of effective television ads that have now begun could paint the governor as sympathetic, as someone unfairly targeted by the political pile-on-ers here and in Washington. His numbers could begin to creep up from the abysmal to just the terrible.

But what if, as is more likely, the budget issues are not addressed and the deficits hang on into the start of the next session, along with continued stalling on signature Paterson issues like gay marriage?

Editorial boards are howling. Continued bad budget numbers send the warring factions of Albany into death mode.

Paterson appears committed to sticking around still. He very well could, several Albany insiders say. Being a lame duck through what promises to be a difficult legislative session will be no fun, and will make the job that much harder. And he is someone who has stretched a career beyond what anyone imagined by thumbing his nose at those who told him that he could not.

“You talk to a number of people around Albany, and they will tell you that there is no doubt in their minds that David Paterson is running,” says one prominent North Country Democrat. “I think there is a feistiness coming back to him.”

Then the status quo remains: Paterson is the governor, and Cuomo is the AG—“the awaiting governor.”

Another round of budget negotiations ensues. The half dozen people waiting to run for Cuomo’s spot get antsy. The several dozen waiting to run for the spots of the half dozen waiting to run for attorney general get antsier still.

Democratic officials, faced with only one settled candidate in the race, will begin to start making up their minds. County leaders, worried about their own candidates and fundraising, will begin to agitate for some answers. Political talent could begin to migrate towards the governor.

People close to Cuomo think there is a good chance that Paterson remains in the race. If they are right, things could begin to get harder by the week.

The activists and reporters will be looking for Cuomo to say something about the budget, and whatever he does will earn him some enemies. Health care workers, teachers, business interests, local governments—eventually he will have to pick sides, and the ones he does not pick will grumble. Loudly.

Challenging an incumbent within the party is never easy. For Cuomo, the difficulties are double. Raw feelings remain from his 2002 race against Carl McCall, despite his statewide victory in 2006, and, even after publicly mellowing, Cuomo has never been quite able to shake the reputation of a politician too-ambitious-by-half, one who places his own aspirations over the party’s or the state’s.  

Republicans say that despite the Cuomo’s camp recent run of discipline, there cannot be another incident like the one when Cuomo’s old ally Patrick Gaspard, currently the White House political director, asked Paterson to step aside.

“The whole thing was not handled very well,” says one GOP strategist. “It shows an overzealousness on his part, or his staffers’ part, and in delicate situations like this they have poor track record. They are just not good at handling these things.”

But if Cuomo does not make his intentions clear by then, Democrats will begin running up against the state party convention in the early summer. But Cuomo could run into trouble if he waits until the last minute to throw his name to the nominating convention. While he would almost surely get the 25 percent of the delegates necessary to run in a primary, races for the other seats could turn into a free-for-fall, leaving voters to decide who runs alongside Cuomo as lieutenant governor. Democrats would like to have racial and geographic diversity, but if left to a nominating convention or the voters of the state, a likely Democratic ticket would be Cuomo at the top, DiNapoli for comptroller, and probably another white politician for the new attorney general—a problem regardless, but an especially large one if the state’s first blind, African-American governor is drummed out of the race.

The problems for the Democrats may even grow worse depending on decisions made by the man whose election night party Cuomo skipped: Bill Thompson. He has been mentioned as a possible state comptroller candidate against DiNapoli, and Rep. José Serrano has suggested that he could challenge Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in a Democratic primary.

If that happens, Cuomo will again be in an awkward spot, where he will be forced to choose between supporting the incumbent after he challenged an incumbent, or supporting Thompson to make up to African-American voters. Going against DiNapoli would infuriate Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver. Going against Gillibrand would infuriate Sen. Chuck Schumer.

For Republicans, a long, drawn-out contest for the Democrats is their best hope.

“There is so much energy and anger and money going to be spent on arriving at a Democratic nominee,” said Kellyanne Conway, a GOP strategist. “We can sit back with a tub of popcorn and let political opponents destroy each other. There is no way to avoid the bloody internecine race if Cuomo enters it.”

And Republicans, sensing that there is a decent chance Paterson hangs on and becomes the nominee, are suddenly rushing to the governor’s defense, wailing that the poor fellow has been mistreated by the Democratic establishment.

“I give the current governor a lot of credit for the situation he has been in,” said Ryan Moses, a GOP strategist who has been advising Rick Lazio’s gubernatorial campaign. “And I’m a Republican saying that, but he has been in as tough a situations as any governor has been in and he has tackled it in a respectful way—he’s not sitting on the sidelines throwing bombs. He’s trying to address the problem.”

Meanwhile, Republicans in the State Senate especially can give Paterson some significant legislative victories that give him just enough to hang on for just long enough.

Their game plan may seem transparent—prop Paterson up long enough to scare away Cuomo, then pounce on the weak nominee in the general election—but they believe their best chance to derail the Cuomo juggernaut is now, before the deal is done.

“It’s not a hand-off,” said one GOP official. “It’s an interception. Depending on how this plays out, it could be very damaging to the Democrats.”

In the meantime, Cuomo finds himself in a peculiar position. As the state’s lawyer, he is removed from the major issues roiling the state. This redounds to his benefit—for now. Cuomo does not—and in fact cannot—reveal his stance on most policy questions, from the commuter tax to gay marriage to just about anything else.

But Lazio, the only announced candidate so far, has started churning press releases and earning media attention by lambasting Albany. If Cuomo is going to be taken seriously, say political professionals, he will soon need to get into the muck of the details and describe how he would fix things.

“At some point in this race he is going to have to credibly articulate what he would have done better in this environment,” says one Democrat strategist. “How would he have dealt with a dysfunctional State Senate and with Shelly Silver? When he starts talking about cutting public employees’ pay for health benefits, or increasing taxes in certain areas, or eliminating services in certain areas, then people say, ‘Wait a minute? What have we got here?’”

Although Cuomo has studiously avoided Albany, and though his prosecution of Ray Harding and of the two Capitol employees, who turned an area of Capitol garage into a “man-cave” from which they dealt marijuana and shirked their jobs, allows him to credibly cast himself as a reformer, Republicans will try to paint him as someone who grew up in the governor’s mansion, and whose family’s fingerprints are all over the mess the state is in.

“He’s tried to stay out of Albany, but he’s been there his whole life,” said Moses, the Lazio advisor. “You can try to distance yourself from it for political reasons, but this guy is a creature of Albany, and if there is one thing we have seen, it is that people are fed up with Albany.”

Even though Cuomo could credibly lay claim to being the only person in the state who has tried to reform government over the past several years, Republicans will remind voters of the last hard-charging attorney general who was anointed by the press and the pundits before the election, and how much worse shape the state found itself in, even before the Emperor’s Club. The state’s financial shape is too dire for another sheriff whose mission has been to hamstring banks and insurance companies, especially for someone whose last name is synonymous with tax-and-spend liberalism, they will charge.

GOP officials say they are already searching for someone who can make that kind of argument against Cuomo, someone outside of the political class—a candidate in the mold of Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman, wealthy entrepreneurs who are both running for statewide office as Republicans in California.

Bad economic news is likely to continue through the next year, and will likely, Republicans say, diminish enthusiasm for Democrats around the country, especially in New York, where the party controls all the levers of power and has witnessed a catastrophe occur on their watch.

“There is a credibility gap between the Democratic Party and the voters in this state,” said one GOP official. “We’ve got an unelected governor because of moral corruption. We have an unelected comptroller because of financial corruption. We have an unelected senator who is out there voting for ACORN, and you have a state Senate leadership that is corrupt, and a Democratic caucus that finally came into power and is at each other’s throats.”

This will reverberate through next year’s elections, the official predicted.

“There is a perception out there that the voters made New York a one-party state and the Democrats botched it in a big way,” the official said. “Some of that is going to stick to Cuomo.”

Plus, they add, there may be key parts of the Democratic coalition that will stay home. Women, for one, have been largely shut out of the top tier of the party’s establishment, and will be more so if Gillibrand loses in a primary. Latinos are under-represented as well, a fact brought forward by the Senate coup. African-American voters are likely to stay loyal to Paterson, as are LGBT voters, who have seen the governor as a champion of their civil rights while Cuomo has, by professional necessity, remained silent, even as some continue to nurse old suspicions over rumors about Cuomo’s tactics on behalf of his father’s mayoral campaign 30 years ago.

But Republicans say that Cuomo’s biggest liability may be Cuomo himself. Though the attorney general has been a model of discipline and calm as attorney general, they believe the demons lurk. In 2002, Cuomo got into some trouble on the stump, calling George Pataki Rudy Giuliani’s coat-holder during Sept. 11 in a remark he never lived down for the rest of the campaign. Even while serving as surrogate for Hillary Clinton, he ran into trouble, telling a radio station that, “You can’t shuck and jive at a press conference,” which was widely interpreted as a racially coded slight at Barack Obama. (His aides insisted that it was not.)

And those sharpening the knives say his messy divorce with Kerry Kennedy, complete with the public airing of her infidelities, remains fair game.

They believe they will be able to get under his skin.

“I think that if Andrew Cuomo is the nominee, it will be a very different Andrew Cuomo out on the campaign trail than people see now,” said Lazio, thinking ahead in a September interview. “He’ll be under pressure, and there are unexpected things that happen in the course of a campaign. How people respond to that matters.”

In the meantime, expect Republicans to be sensitive to any move Cuomo makes that looks like he is trying to replace Paterson at the top of the ticket. Any slight shift of language. Any leak of bad news, or poll or endorsement, they will harp on to point out that the Cuomo who served as his father’s political fixer is back, and that voters are not getting the unsullied top cop that they think they are.

And as the calendar ticks closer to September 2010, if Cuomo wants the job, he will have to make some of these moves. It is enough to make even the most confident Cuomo boosters less than sanguine about what the next year will hold.

“You know, there are worse things in the world than for Andrew to wait for years to run for governor,” says one former advisor. “All of a sudden, it ain’t ideal.”

illustration by Russ Tudor, photo by Andrew Schwartz

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