An article last week inadvertently put the value of the 1984 commercial catch of striped bass in New York at $1.2 billion instead of $1.2 million.
Mario Matthew Cuomo, governor of New York, media star, orator, new hope of Democrats: Could it be that the man is a mere politician?
Midway through his four-year term, Cuomo has the highest national profile of any U.S. governor. He is overwhelmingly popular in his home state and widely touted as a possible presidential contender.
Nonetheless, when it comes to what Cuomo calls "the prose of governing," as opposed to the "poetry of campaigning," his record as an administrator is increasingly under fire.
"The further away from Albany, the better he looks," said one New York City congressman, a Democrat, marveling at how, "in Washington, Mario walks on water."
Editorials in The New York Times and the Daily News last week accused Cuomo of "capitulating" to city transit unions. Environmentalists were baffled by his recent decision not to ban striped-bass fishing off Long Island after a state study said the fish contained cancer-causing PCBs.
Advocates for the homeless say he has failed to follow through on promises of aid. Several of his appointees to cabinet-level and other executive posts have been criticized as mediocre, and his nominee for state economic development director withdrew recently amid charges that his resume exaggerated his qualifications.
Despite the criticism, friends and foes alike praise Cuomo for his inspirational speeches and his energetic schedule of town meetings and talk shows. "He's a visionary," one high-level Democratic operative said. "His weakness is governing."
While the national news media continue to rain favorable coverage on Cuomo -- from a glowing profile on CBS's "60 Minutes" to a New Republic cover story this month -- Cuomo's local press is often less enthusiastic and his relations have soured with Albany-based reporters who complain that he reacts angrily to stories he dislikes.
Cuomo's sensitivity to what is written about him is legendary, even for a prominent politician. He has been known to grab a telephone receiver out of his press secretary's hand to speak to surprised reporters asking questions about the governor.
"Even supporters see a gap between Cuomo's stirring speeches and how his administration performs," noted the Long Island paper, Newsday, at the outset of a three-part series on Cuomo's record.
In an interview, Cuomo said the criticism reminded him of the "beautiful-blond syndrome. An attractive woman is penalized by people who say she can't cook . . . ," he said. "Likewise, if you can make a good speech, they say you probably can't do anything else . . . ."
"Mario could be an extraordinary president," said Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.). "When he writes a speech he's capable of breaking new ground in a way that [Colorado Sen. Gary] Hart, [New Jersey Sen. Bill] Bradley and others couldn't begin to think about. The president doesn't necessarily have to be a great administrator."
While saying he is not thinking presidential politics, Cuomo has cultivated his national image, from his speech at the University of Notre Dame on religion and politics to his recent trip to Washington for the National Governors' Conference. He is to speak Wednesday at an American Society of Newspaper Editors lunch at the Washington Sheraton.
Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale's supporters were horrified when Cuomo, a month before the November election, gave an extensive interview to The New York Times on whether and how he might run for president in 1988.
Cuomo said his image among Albany legislators may suffer from the "familiarity-breeds-contempt" phenomenon. "I will never be the greatest governor the state ever had, but I've worked as hard as any governor who ever sat in my chair," he said, noting that he is "getting applause everywhere" for the $39 billion state budget approved last week.
Cuomo and state legislators this year faced a resurgent state economy that permitted tax cuts and spending increases. "This is an extraordinary budget," Cuomo told a news conference Thursday. "We've proven you can be both progressive and pragmatic."
In marked contrast, Cuomo in his first year in office laid off 9,000 state workers, and his early retirement program left various parts of the government, particularly the mental health system, in disarray.
This fiscal year's budget raises overall spending by 6.2 percent, raises state aid to public schools by $470 million, raises basic aid to welfare recipients 10 percent in the last quarter of the year, gives localities an additional $70 million in aid and initiates a $50 million housing program for low-rent rehabilitation and moderately priced construction.
If that agenda delights liberals, Cuomo has balanced the slate with a program of "fiscal reform" to end the state's spring borrowing, which last year forced it to raise $4.3 billion in financial markets, making it the largest borrower among states.
Cuomo tried to pass a constitutional amendment forcing the state to adopt generally accepted accounting principles, known as GAAP, which would prohibit the budgeting of funds without revenues in hand. State legislators balked but compromised, accepting the principles this year and establishing a fund to pay off past debt.
Goaded by Republicans who control the state Senate, Cuomo backed a $3 billion, three-year tax cut program, which would reduce by $406 a year the taxes of a four-member family with an income of $20,000. About 500,000 poor taxpayers would drop off the rolls, and the maximum rate on dividend and interest income would drop from 14 to 13 percent.
Cuomo's role in the transit issue is more controversial. In the midst of delicate negotiations between the Metropolitan Transit Authority and city transit unions, Cuomo pushed a bill through the legislature April 1 allowing arbitrators to impose a settlement if negotiations break down. MTA Chairman Robert Kiley, who had had the upper hand until that moment, called it a "setback" in trying to force changes in work rules.
"Gov. Cuomo and legislators . . . caved in and okayed a special bill sought by the union," the Daily News editorialized. "What they have done is to cripple one side of a fair fight."
Cuomo said intervention was necessary because of a threat of a strike or work stoppages and because "the MTA was making it obvious that it didn't intend to negotiate on wages" until the union gave in on work rules. Under the legislation, the union would have to prove that it had negotiated in good faith before binding arbitration could take place, he said.
In the striped-bass case, the state health commissioner issued a report two months ago declaring PCB levels in the fish to be "consistently and significantly" above the federal safety limit.
After vigorous lobbying by commercial fishing interests, which catch seafood worth about $1.2 billion a year, Cuomo decided to ban commercial striped-bass fishing in New York Harbor and off western Long Island but not off Eastern Long Island, where about 90 percent of the catch is taken.
Environmentalists, already disillusioned by Cuomo's strong support for Westway, a proposed multibillion-dollar highway and development in Manhattan, cried politics.
"The governor doesn't know what he is doing on environmental issues," said Robert Boyle, president of the Hudson River Fishermen's Association. "He has no knowledge of ecosystems, but he does have good political instincts."
Cuomo said he would reconsider the decision if adequate fish samples from Eastern Long Island were provided.
Cuomo, who speaks eloquently about the plight of the homeless, gets mixed reviews from social service activists in New York City and Albany. "Gov. Cuomo has betrayed his commitment by an inept execution of his promises," said Robert Hayes, head of the influential Coalition for the Homeless. "When Cuomo took office, there were 1,200 beds in community residences for the homeless mentally ill. Two-and-a-half years later, there are 1,400 beds, even though the legislature has appropriated money for 1,000 new beds each year."
Hayes said, however, that "Cuomo is head and shoulders above governors in other states. He's the best of a bad lot."
Cuomo notes that his $50 million program to build housing for the homeless over three years is larger than the federal government's homeless program.
Cuomo's appointments have been uneven, Albany observers said. "Some of his appointments have been pretty good, others have been disasters," said Assemblyman Patrick G. Halpin, a Democrat, adding that the commissioner of environmental conservation, Henry Williams, is "not a very effective advocate for the environment."
A New York congressman who deals regularly with housing issues called Cuomo's housing commissioner, Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, wife of an aide to a powerful Buffalo legislator, "a political hack who's never there."
Cuomo referred a reporter to Scruggs-Leftwich's resume, which shows that she was a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Many of those who criticize Cuomo, including members of Congress, state legislators and lobbyists, ask that their names not be used. "Mario is an Old Testament Christian rather than a New Testament Christian," said one suburban congressman, who admires Cuomo as a politician. "He's vindictive. He has an enemies list. I sort of view him as a liberal Nixon."
Those who supported New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch over Cuomo in the 1982 primary say Cuomo never forgets. Halpin, for example, ran for Suffolk County executive against the Republican incumbent. Two weeks before the election, a group run by Cuomo's son, Andrew, printed a mailing promoting a state bond issue showing Cuomo arm-in-arm with Halpin's opponent.
"Cuomo wanted to settle a score since I supported Koch in the primary," Halpin said. But he added that Cuomo had called him in last summer to mend fences.
Cuomo said the mailing was not deliberately anti-Halpin, adding that, if anything, he has been "too soft" on Halpin after persistent criticism.
Cuomo's ambivalence toward running for president is a constant topic in New York.
"I feel I am a competent governor," he said in a radio interview Thursday. "I feel very comfortable at this job. But I'm not sure what kind of president I'd make . . . . I'm not stupid enough or naive enough to think this country can't do better than Mario Cuomo as president."