The Democratic candidates for governor here provide a striking contrast in their biographies. One was born into poverty and as a child lived on welfare; the other is the heir to two of the most prominent names in Democratic politics.
Now the quiz: Which one is the "outsider"? That would be Andrew Cuomo, of course, former housing secretary in the Clinton administration, son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo and, by marriage, a member of the Kennedy family's political dynasty.
In a bid to turn certain defeat into an opportunity, Andrew Cuomo has embraced the outsider label with a vengeance. He spurned the state Democratic convention here this week as a collection of insider power brokers and conceded to state comptroller Carl McCall the battle to win the party's endorsement in the battle against Gov. George E. Pataki (R) in November.
Cuomo said he would take his campaign "to the streets" and "to the people" in an effort to win a place on the September primary ballot by petition rather than through the traditional path of winning the support of the delegates to the party convention. It wasn't clear whether he would have won even the 25 percent of the delegates' votes needed to qualify for the ballot.
The political gamble may have returned the short-term dividends Cuomo was seeking. He at least avoided some headlines trumpeting a crushing defeat at the hands of McCall. Cuomo's campaign suffered a blow earlier this spring when he belittled Pataki's leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Whether this week's shift from wooing delegates to rebuffing them will be seen by the voters as the act of an authentic outsider or a desperate candidate was part of the debate inside and out of the convention hall today.
David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist who is not helping either candidate but has past ties to McCall, called Cuomo's decision "a fairly shrewd move" designed to "turn hamburger into steak." But he said Cuomo "runs the risk of looking disingenuous because he worked so hard to get support and because he was an Albany insider for years . . . [as] his dad's political lieutenant."
Inside the hotel ballroom where the Democrats met today, there was no sign that Mario Cuomo had led the party for 12 years or that his son was running for governor. Amid the banners and balloons, the name Cuomo was absent. While the state's elected Democratic leaders cheered on McCall with all the pomp and staging of any political convention, Cuomo held his own rally blocks away in a room with low ceilings, fluorescent lights and barely enough air conditioning.
Much of this was merely political theater, since the Democratic nominee will be chosen in the party's Sept. 10 primary. The convention once was seen as an early test of strength among the party activists and elected officials, and for months Cuomo and McCall competed for the support of these Democrats. But on the eve of the convention, the Cuomo forces let out the word that they wouldn't even show up for the vote.
Cuomo's surprise decision, which he announced on the opening day of the convention Wednesday, drew a rebuke from McCall, who said he had "never run from a fight." Today, after receiving the party's designation for governor by acclamation, he used his speech to take another swipe at his rival. "Despite those who have tried to diminish this gathering, this convention is a people's convention, made up of the strongest, the most committed grass-roots Democrats that exist any place," McCall said.
Cuomo said his fight was not with the delegates but with "a culture of dysfunction in Albany" that "has failed the people." Invoking his father, former president Bill Clinton and even President Bush, Cuomo said he hoped to capture the reform mantle in his campaign.
If he wins the primary against Cuomo, McCall will be the first African American nominated to run for governor in the state's history, and his acceptance speech ended with the chant -- "It's time, it's time." McCall had invoked it in his speech to mean time for a change in Albany, but as the words rang out in the ballroom, they seemed to convey another meaning as well.
McCall and Cuomo now face four months of bruising competition for the nomination with the prospect of the winner emerging with a depleted bank account and a divided party. In Pataki the Democrats are going against an opponent who was strengthened by the events of Sept. 11 and already has succeeded in peeling off some traditional Democratic support by winning the endorsement of key unions in the state.