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The Nation

Cuomo Ends Bid for N.Y. Governor

Politics: Polls show the ex-Housing secretary was badly trailing H. Carl McCall in next week's Democratic primary.

September 04, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, seeking the New York governor's office once held by his father, suddenly withdrew from the race Tuesday, just a week before the Democratic primary, and pledged his support to state Comptroller H. Carl McCall.

Running behind and remaining stagnant in the polls, Cuomo portrayed his actions as a step toward party unity.

"Sometimes when you try to communicate too many ideas, sometimes you end up communicating nothing, and in part the campaign did that," Cuomo said at a news conference with former President Clinton and other politicians at his side.

"I fell behind in the polls in July and August ... and I accept full responsibility for the way the campaign was run," added Cuomo, the eldest son of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

He said he rejected the recommendation of advisors, who urged a last-minute, $2-million blitz of commercials attacking McCall.

"I will not close the gap in an election by opening one in the body politic," Cuomo said. "While it's harder for me to step back than step forward, today I step back."

Once the Democratic front-runner, Cuomo slipped badly after he charged that Gov. George Pataki had ceded leadership after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center to then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Cuomo said Pataki had merely "held the leader's coat."

Cuomo was broadly criticized for his remark--even his father said it was a political error.

McCall welcomed Cuomo's support and joked, "All this was supposed to happen next Tuesday. That's one thing about politics. It's always unpredictable."

Even by the often bizarre standards of politics in the Empire State, Cuomo's action was unusual. "Nothing comes to mind historically," said Steven Cohen, a professor of public policy at Columbia University. "People have pulled out of a race before, but nothing like this."

Some Democrats recalled then-Gov. Cuomo's last-minute decision in 1992 not to seek the White House even as planes waited at the airport to take him to New Hampshire to enter the presidential primary.

"It's genetic," said a veteran Democratic operative who asked not to be identified. "His father established the historical precedent."

Polls had shown Cuomo more than 20 points behind McCall, who has run a steady campaign stressing themes of a first-class education for all children, affordable health care and housing and greater job opportunities in the state.

McCall, 66, who with Cuomo's withdrawal will become the state's first African American nominee for governor from a major party, repeatedly accused Pataki of inattention to the economy.

Cuomo, 44, proved to be a strong fund-raiser. But politicians and consultants said his blunder in attacking Pataki after Sept. 11 represented a combative campaign style ill-suited to the politics of healing after the twin towers tragedy.

"The decline began when he criticized Pataki's role in the 9/11 recovery," said Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University. "He didn't understand that the whole debate about 9/11 was not part of the political agenda."

While Cuomo was in Washington serving as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, McCall developed and nurtured relationships among Democrats in the state.

"In a Democratic primary in New York, relationships mean a lot," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who has advised McCall. Cuomo "didn't understand he had to develop those relationships and keep them going."

Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, proclaimed neutrality in the race.

But as McCall's lead in the polls soared and held steady, signs appeared that they were leaning toward the comptroller, who stressed to voters his rise from poverty, his prior experience as a deputy ambassador to the United Nations and as a vice president of Citibank.

On Monday, McCall and Sen. Clinton marched together in Brooklyn's West Indian American Day parade. Cuomo arrived later at the event.

"Andrew Cuomo is someone who cares deeply about the people of New York," she said. "This was a difficult decision, and I applaud his courage in making it."

"I know in many ways this is a sad day," said former President Clinton, who shared the platform with Cuomo at the news conference. "I suffered two searing defeats in my life, but I can tell you that today is the day you should be very proud of Andrew. I am the only person standing on this stage whose political career is over."

A source close to Clinton said the former president spoke with Cuomo and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) on Monday. The veteran congressman, who is close to McCall, also attended the news conference.

"He was someone who was involved in this as it went along," the source said of Clinton, but declined to say whether the former president encouraged his onetime Cabinet official to drop out.

Polls show McCall facing an uphill fight against Pataki, who defeated Cuomo's father eight years ago.

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