Typical of the frustration in the politics of New York, Mario Cuomo could well be the last best chance to save this city from further disasters. Instead, he is acquiring the look of a candidate running dead in the water after two months of campaigning.
Battle-Hardened veterans here, regulars and reformers, consider Cuomo a loser. The 45-year-old appointive New York Secretary of State ran dreadfully in 1974 for nomination for lieutenant governor, his only previous race. He is an undisciplined candidate without experienced political managers or sufficient funds. Worse, he has the image of being Gov. Hugh Carey's creature.
Nevertheless, Cuomo could mean salvation for this beleqguered city, a safe harbor between the Scylla of Mayor Abraham Beame, leading the forlorn clubhouse regulars, and the Charybdis ex-Rep. Bella Abzug, promising to storm Washington for federal funds. Neither they nor two-time loser Rep. Herman Badillo, a later starter, would bring the economies so desperately needed her. Without those economies, businessmen see no halt to the continuing deadly exodus of industry, merchants and the middle-class.
In contrast, Cuomo knows business taxes must be lowered and that mony to cut taxes must come not from Washington but from reduced city spending. That hard-nosed lesson, applicable to all cities, is also appreciated by another candidate, Rep. Edward Koch. But Cuomo, not Koch, is given the best chance of breaking the Abzug-Beame stranglehold.
Even if he loses the Democratic primary in September, Cuomo will have another shot in November as Liberal Party candidate (a nomination dictated by Carey). Furthermore, he is the only non-Jewish, non-black, non-Puerto Rican candidate in a likely field of eight. As such he may draw well in the ethnic wards of Qyeens and Brooklyn.
But beyond this, Mario Cuomo has political characteristics that make him appealing across the political spectrum. That's what has intrigued politicians since he first came to public attention in 1972 by trying to compromise a racial housing struggle in Forest Hills.
Certainly, Cuomo is no reflexive liberal. "Liberalism is a luxury," says the Liberal Party candidate. Calling for economies, he says he might phase out that expensive sacred cow, New York's municipally owned hospitals.
How to stop the exodus of the middle class? Cuomo ansers with a question: "What is more important to a man with children than that his wife not get raped and that his children go to a decent school?" Therefore, "when people commit crimes, they should be punished hard enough so they won't commit more crimes." And what is the primary need of public schools? "Order being restored," he says.
Yet, this apostle of law, order and fiscal conservatism is a favorite of some advanced liberals. Part of thereason is that there is no trace of racial provocation in Cuomo's rhetoric. Beyond that, liberals feel he is the mayoral candidate smart and tough enough to clean house. When Cuomo calls this city "a boondoggler's paradise, a patronage prize and the worst-managed city in the country," he sounds as though he means it.
Cuomo's many supporters on the left may frighten off potential supporters! Backing from Prof. Richard Wade of City University, battered survivor of many liberal campaigns, reassures nobody. Financier Felix Rohatyn is leery about Cuomo's association with Jack Newfield, the "new left" activist of the 1960s (with whom Cuomo says he disagrees on 60 per cent of the issues).
But Cuomo's heaviestcross is Hugh Carey. The governor's clumsy abandonment of Beame and endorsement of Cuomo has become a liability that can be eliminated only by clear demonstrations of independence (though not enough to discourage Carey fund-raising efforts).
Cuomo has hired the team that sent Jimmy Carter from Plains to the White House - adman Jerry Rafshoon and pollster Pat Caddell. A further asset is his ability to concoct glittering one-liners ("Bella is John Lindsay with a hat").
But the real hope is that Cuomo's candor will appeal to New Yorkers sick of hypocrisy, which is asking a great deal indeed.