12:01 pm Oct. 27, 20101
ALBANY—“I’ve worked on the urban agenda all my life. All. My. Life,” Andrew Cuomo said on October 21, near City Hall. “I started in my 20s building affordable housing in East New York, Brooklyn. I spent eight years at HUD working on the urban agenda in the poorest places in this country. As attorney general, I was probably the most active attorney general in modern political history in the area of civil rights-types discrimination, et cetera. So I think I’ve done it all my life.”
The obvious subtext, after a campaign in which Cuomo has spent much time and energy emphasizing his New Democratic credentials, is that his heightened attention to issues of particular concern to black Democrats is not a course-correction.
Polls show Cuomo will glide to victory over Republican Carl Paladino and his other five challengers, including one, Councilman Charles Barron, whose candidacy an explicit response to the absence of any African-American candidates on the statewide Democratic ticket. But the question of engaging black voters (and leaders) remains important for Cuomo, who seeks as broad a mandate as possible to do battle with legislators when he takes office next year.
Before Paladino's nomination, Cuomo was already looking to January, describing this whole election as simply "a means to the end" and promising to build a diverse coalition in support of his agenda. With black and Hispanic elected officials a major, arguably dominant, bloc in both the Senate and Assembly, Cuomo can't afford to be seen, by officials or their constituents, as having a blind spot.
Cuomo began developing the "urban" treatise in question—202 pages about programs for job training, increasing contracts to women and minority-owned businesses, providing incentives for the construction of affordable housing—in June, after grumbling by some black elected officials who met in Mt. Vernon and leaked notice that they weren’t pleased with Cuomo’s then all-white campaign team or his fiscally conservative, soccer-mom-focused New Democratic agenda.
Before he even started his campaign, the issue of his relationship with black voters was sensitive for Cuomo. He ran in 2002 against the Democratic Party’s first black gubernatorial nominee, Carl McCall, and spent a good deal of last year pondering ways to run around or over David Paterson, the state’s first black governor. Basil Paterson, a longtime labor leader, member of Harlem’s old “gang of four” and the governor’s father, asked on NY1 just before the New Year, by way of warning: “Does he turn off the Democratic black vote even if he should win the primary?" Paterson added that 2002 had left a “sour note” with black officials.
The primary never came to pass, with Governor Paterson ending his election campaign a week after it began. Cuomo sat silent for another few months, content to be the presumed standard bearer and not say or do anything that might affect the sky-high poll ratings he's constructed as a bad-guy-busting, all-business attorney general.
By then, Cuomo was railing hard against "Albany" and its leaders, most of whom, as it happens right now, are black. So even as he pushed for a suburbanite-pleasing property-tax cap, he denounced the legislature, and by extension Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson, and decried the lack of progress under Governor Paterson.
"I'm not a 'new Democrat,' I'm a lifelong Democrat,” New York City Councilman Robert Jackson told me at the party convention in Westchester County back in May. "I believe in honesty, integrity and straight-forwardness. If Cuomo is not going to look after the children as is his constitutional obligation, if he's not going to worry about the homeless and feeding the hungry, and that's the New Democratic Party, then I have concerns. To me, that sounds like the Republican Party. If it is, don't call it the New Democratic Party—call it the New Democratic Republican Conservative Party."
There was also discontent over Cuomo's selection of Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy as lieutenant governor, which ensured an all-white ticket. Cuomo responded by promising “an administration that reflects diversity.”
Cuomo engaged veteran operative Juanita Scarlett as an adviser to begin work on the urban agenda in June, and later had Charlie King and Bill Thompson, black Cuomo allies who are, respectively, the executive director of the Democratic State Committee and a former comptroller and mayoral candidate, hold listening sessions in the outer boroughs starting in August. Thompson became a semi-formal adviser. The campaign hired Patrick Jenkins, a veteran of Eliot Spitzer’s campaign, as deputy manager. Cuomo attended a birthday party for embattled congressman Charlie Rangel, as other officials were giving Rangel a wide berth.
On Aug. 6, Cuomo promised that the Urban Agenda was forthcoming. Elinor Tatum, publisher of the Harlem-based Amsterdam News, printed an open letter on Spet. 24 charging that Cuomo had been absent: “Where have you been? Where have you been these last four years? Your ads say that you have been there for New York, but for which New York? Do you mean Black and Brown New York? Upstate New York? Rich New York? The answer to that question is not clear, and it really should be by this time. You have proved nothing to us. You have showed us nothing that makes us want to stand strongly behind you. We feel as though all too often, you have taken us for granted and you have less than 40 days to turn this ship around.”
Cuomo's response was to dial up appearances from surrogates on his behalf, mostly from the Harlem-based establishment, like McCall and former mayor David Dinkins. Cuomo had made his peace, systematically, with all of them, and he was calling in his chits.
Three days later, Cuomo announced plans to greet voters in Harlem before meeting with the Rev. Al Sharpton and others at Sylvia’s. He aborted the handshaking when he encountered several of Barron’s heckling supporters.
On Oct. 21, before the City Hall rally, Cuomo met separately with officials from central Brooklyn at Pratt Institute. While Democrats, they were facing pressure from their constituents to support Barron. Cuomo thanked them for their fealty, two people at the meeting said. Then he presented the agenda. Some in the group, including Senator Velmanette Montgomery, joined Cuomo later in the day for the announcement.
Cuomo is leading in polls, and whatever complaints there are about him among black leaders seem to have been overshadowed by Candidate Paladino. Parts of Paladino's platform—which includes a “dignity corps” that will send the unemployed to converted prisons and plans to ship low-income youths to boarding schools—were a whole other level of troubling, to the extent that it ever looked like Paladino could actually win, than the perceived lack of attention from Cuomo.
The question now is not whether black voters will abandon Cuomo in big numbers for another candidate—Barron notwithstanding, polls indicate that there is very little chance of that happening—but at what levels they will turn out for him. In Brooklyn, Cuomo acknowledged there was an “enthusiasm gap,” and pledged to support get-out-the-vote efforts around the state.
“It's not a situation where this campaign is over, so (Cuomo) is still continuing to reach out," said Assemblyman Darryl Towns of Brooklyn. "Do I think that the work is done? No. It continues, but I think the attorney general is reaching out to communities of color, and it's not that he has to do an introduction. There were some concerns about the state party putting the whole package together… There’s a widening gap at the top with Cuomo and Paladino, and we want to make sure he can develop some coattails.”
Jimmy Vielkind is a political reporter for the Albany Times Union and principal contributor to its Capitol Confidential blog.
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