Heading off Cuomo’s Tim Wu problem

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Wu and Teachout. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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Blake Zeff

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Growing up running his father’s races and helping him govern has made Andrew Cuomo a political operator of exceedingly rare skill. Having seen the old man’s mistakes and misfortunes first-hand, Cuomo has reacted with determination and force at the merest possibility of anything similar befalling him.

Hence the spectacle of the governor’s newly reconfirmed ally, the Working Families Party, taking a shot at a little-known lieutenant governor candidate, Tim Wu, on Thursday.

The cause of the broadside, like its target, was relatively obscure.

(Wu, a Columbia Law professor and leading advocate of net neutrality, had told a radio host he’d like to relieve small businesses of “red tape,” a comment that caused W.F.P. to “strongly disagree” with his “slippery slope” position on the Scaffold Law.)

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Cuomo, as has been widely discussed, has picked former Western New York congresswoman Kathy Hochul to be his lieutenant governor. In the general election, she may help him do better in the region than he did last time, when he ran against area businessman Carl Paladino in the general.

Hochul brings gender (though not ethnic) diversity to the ticket, and as a seasoned politician, she’s unlikely to say or do anything too problematic on the trail, or once in office.

But while the pair is running together, New York state law doesn’t let them actually appear on the primary ballot as one ticket. Which means Cuomo has his own Democratic gubernatorial primary (against Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who gave him a scare by lining up support from a substantial chunk of Working Families membership before the party's convention) and Hochul her own, against Wu.

Cuomo is almost certain to win both his primary and general election races, likely in blowouts. Hochul is another story.

She’s well known in her native Buffalo region, but is hardly a household name in the rest of the state. She’s recently been a source of Fred Dicker-stirred controversy for keeping a low campaign profile (despite the fact that lieutenant governors are not normally major statewide draws or campaign centerpieces anyway), thanks to her liberal-base-incompatible positions on guns and immigration.

Meanwhile, for all their challenges, Wu and Teachout are running what appears to be a real campaign. Their ticket says it will have more than triple the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot (which is wise, since any errant signatures are sure to be challenged). They’ve got a real-deal campaign manager in Mike Boland, who has significant organizing experience. And Wu’s Taiwanese-Anglo background may appeal to the Democratic primary electorate, especially with local primary races in New York City featuring Asian-American candidates that could turn out supportive voters.

Sources tell Capital that concern over Wu was a topic of discussion on a late June phone call among Working Families Party officers after the party hitched its wagon to the Cuomo-Hochul team. While the call mostly covered plans to bring the Independent Democratic Conference (I.D.C.) back to the Senate’s Democratic caucus, it eventually drifted into a discussion about fear that Wu’s status as the son of immigrants could pose an unfortunate contrast in a New York Democratic primary with Hochul’s positions on immigration, such as opposing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Seizing on the optical disparity that had the W.F.P. worried, Wu released a statement last week that said in part, “Kathy Hochul made her name based on her anti-immigrant policies; my family story is an immigrant success story.”

A W.F.P. spokesman declined to comment for this story.

Is it likely Wu will win? Maybe not. But it’s possible. Which means Cuomo could end up with a running mate and nominal number two in government that he doesn’t want, and won’t be able to control.

He knows, first-hand, that such situations are possible.

New York history buffs will recall that Mario Cuomo was stuck with Al DelBello as his lieutenant governor back in 1983, when he really wanted Carl McCall. DelBello had been primary foe Ed Koch’s choice, but still prevailed in the 1982 election even when Koch had been vanquished.

Once in office, the Cuomo-DelBello arrangement did not go well, and DelBello resigned before the end of his term, citing, among other things, boredom.

As DelBello told my colleague Jimmy Vielkind recently, “We were forced on the ticket together, which is not a good way to get on the ticket.”

Bob McCarthy, veteran of the Buffalo News, recently reported, “The result [of Wu’s challenge to Hochul] is unexpected concern in the Cuomo camp over – of all things – the race for lieutenant governor.”

Repeating this psychodrama would be bad enough for the younger Cuomo. Add to this the fact that Wu has a platform explicitly hostile to Cuomo’s pro-business focus, and, as a party outsider, no team-player notions to constrain him from giving voice to that hostility if he gets into office.

“You can expect a progressive-style, trust-busting kind of campaign out of me,” Wu recently told the Washington Post . “And I fully intend to bridge that gap between the kind of typical issues in electoral politics and questions involving private power.”

It may not be a disaster, but the scenario would be a potential nuisance—especially for a governor famous for his ability to control every lever of the state government.

Talk to people who know him well, and they say the question is not whether Andrew Cuomo will avoid such a fate, but how.

One way would be to wage a focused effort to ensure Wu’s electoral demise (starting with aggressively challenging his petitions to get on the ballot). The criticism by W.F.P. of his position on the Scaffold Law is relatively small potatoes, but obviously Wu's future comments during this campaign will be strictly scrutinized (and if he’s done something unseemly in his recent past, don’t be shocked to see it in the news over the next few months).

Beyond that, if Hochul were to find herself in any electoral danger, she could tap into a huge chest of campaign cash, should the governor’s donors learn that it is a priority for him. While Wu will likely have a hard time raising money for his campaign committee, Hochul could have at her disposal the large universe of donors that have maxed out to Cuomo and could now give to her as well. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, that could power media, GOTV and other facets of a real campaign.

Cuomo could also ask for more activity from his labor allies in the race. Make no mistake, while the Working Families Party wasn’t unanimously for the governor before its nominating convention, it is in for him now all the way. They're in a position to provide a meaningful edge in turnout operation that she can exploit. (Which is why the W.F.P. attack on Wu’s position on the Scaffold Law suddenly starts to make a lot more sense.)

And even if Wu were to somehow pull out a long-shot victory, the governor might not be totally out of luck. The lieutenant governor position’s authority and place in the state government has long been the subject of debate , and it’s not unfathomable that it could be altered. The governor has shown an exceptional ability to rewrite the contours of the state’s governmental apparatus, as with his installation of Moreland Commissions or his dilution of the power of the elected attorney general by creating the governor’s own financial services agency . A Tim Wu victory might call for more of this executive creativity.

So will Tim Wu be Al DelBello 2.0? Andrew Cuomo has seen this play before and, one way or another, he’s determined to rewrite the ending.

Blake Zeff is the politics editor at Salon.