New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo attends an appearance by President Barack Obama at Hudson Valley Community College last fall. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has a bulging $16 million war chest, possesses sky-high poll numbers and is widely thought to be the front-runner in November’s election to succeed Gov. David Paterson, who is not running to win a full term.
Yet despite a myriad of signs pointing to the same place, Cuomo refuses to discuss his plans publicly, leaving New York in the unique situation of having both a lame-duck governor and a seeming governor-in-waiting.
Cuomo doesn’t exactly deny that he’s running for governor; he just dodges the questions and avoids lengthy sit-down interviews where the subject might be harder to escape.
“Attorney General Cuomo is focused on doing the job he was elected to do,” spokesman Josh Vlasto said when asked about the widespread belief Cuomo will make a bid. “He will announce his plans at the appropriate time.”
It’s an unusual approach for a presumed candidate for governor, but it’s one that appears to be working for Cuomo, the eldest son of former Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo and a former secretary of housing and urban development in the Clinton administration.
For a time, Cuomo’s public silence was born of necessity. Insiders in both parties expected he would challenge Paterson in the Democratic primary — where polls showed Cuomo would win easily — but Cuomo couldn’t afford to publicly tip his hand because of lingering resentments from his aborted 2002 primary bid for governor, when he took on Carl McCall, the state comptroller who at the time was vying to become New York’s first African-American governor.
And by avoiding a declaration of his candidacy, he doesn’t have to answer thorny questions about how he would govern at a time when the state is facing painful budget choices. Just as important, the tight-lipped strategy has enabled him to stay above the fray in Albany’s deeply dysfunctional culture and allowed him to continue carefully crafting his image as a hard-charging, corruption-fighting agent of change.
Recently, Cuomo brought a civil suit against the Democratic Party’s state Senate majority leader for allegedly looting millions from a government-backed health care organization.
And so far, Cuomo has been able to escape any taint from Paterson’s brief and scandal-plagued time in office. Paterson, who ascended to the governorship in 2008 after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, decided not to seek reelection after reports surfaced about his embroilment in the alleged coverup of a domestic violence scandal involving a close aide.
Cuomo “has positioned himself well by doing a good job,” said veteran New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “He’s been able to pound the enemies that New Yorkers have. The insurance industry, Wall Street and the Legislature are the enemies of the people. And he’s taken them on.”
“The minute he politicizes the attorney general platform, it loses its validity,” Sheinkopf added. “If you politicize the office, you’re just like everyone else. Uniqueness is what will get him elected.”
Most politicians — in New York or anywhere else — wouldn’t have the stature to freeze the field in an open primary as Cuomo has been able to do. But with high name recognition —thanks to his family and his high-profile tenure as attorney general — strong poll ratings and a massive campaign treasury, Cuomo manages to sit atop the race without ever actually declaring, on the record, that he is running.
As of the last filing deadline in January, the attorney general had more than $16 million in the bank, well ahead of any potential Republican opponents. By contrast, party-switching Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy had $4 million as of January, and former Rep. Rick Lazio had just over $600,000. Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino has pledged to pump $10 million of his own money into the race, but he remains largely unknown to voters and has yet to file a campaign finance report.
According to the most recent Siena poll, Cuomo is at least 35 percentage points ahead of each of his three prospective GOP opponents. He also continues to fly high in polls, with a 66 percent favorability rating. A 53 percent majority said they wanted him to run for governor rather than reelection as attorney general.
“From a political strategy point of view, [Cuomo] has done and is doing the absolute right thing,” said Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for the Siena Research Institute, which conducts polling in New York. “There are three main reasons to declare early. One is to increase your name recognition and to make voters familiar with you in a positive way. The second is fundraising. The third is to keep other candidates out.”
Cuomo is “the most popular politician in New York from either party,” he said. “He is in as strong a position as he can possibly be about six months shy of an election.”
With the state Democratic convention just weeks away, it’s likely only a matter of time before Cuomo makes his bid official.
“Sometime in the next four weeks, Andrew Cuomo is going to declare what everyone knows: that he’s running for governor,” said Greenberg.