Andrew Cuomo used to love the Democratic National Convention

andrew-cuomo-used-love-democratic-national-convention
Cuomo, at the 2000 convention in Los Angeles. (C-SPAN)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Back in 2000, when Andrew Cuomo was trying to cement his status as a rising young star, he viewed the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles as a springboard.

He was everywhere.

A New York Times story about Cuomo's busy schedule reported his convention itinerary to be 23 pages long, with his then-wife, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo in tow, along with a public relations rep who relayed the necessary details to reporters back home.

At the time, Cuomo, who was finishing his service as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was already positioning himself for a gubernatorial primary two years later against Carl McCall.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

He addressed all the caucuses he could, sat for television interviews on the convention floor, and held court for reporters in impromptu press conferences.

But Cuomo said his busy convention schedule was all in the service of electing Al Gore president.

"As a cabinet member, my job here is to communicate the record and mobilize the Democrats to go forward," he told the Times. "That's job No. 1. Everything else is a distant second."

He hasn't been as eager on President Obama's behalf this year.

Despite holding the highest poll numbers of any sitting governor, and having a famous name and distinguished Democratic pedigree, Cuomo has said he'll maintain a low profile and only show up for the last day of this year's convention in Charlotte.

Others governors are taking a more active role. On Monday morning, the convention committee announced Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, both outspoken supporters of Obama, would deliver primetime speeches on the president's behalf. (O'Malley and Patrick are regular defenders of Obama on the Sunday morning talk shows, where Cuomo also refuses to appear.)

Cuomo's rationale seems to be that he doesn't want to encourage detailed presidential scrutiny at such an early stage, and wants to avoid making himself a partisan lightning rod, lessons learned from his father's famous 1984 convention speech. Also, maybe, he doesn't see the percentage in tying himself any more closely to Obama than he needs to.

In 2000, Cuomo had a non-prime, afternoon speaking slot on the fourth day, wedged between Michigan congressman David Bonior and California congresswoman Maxine Waters. He only had five minutes, but he tried to make the most of it.

"Yes, we are new Democrats with new solutions," he said. "But make no mistake, we still work to build the new frontier of John F. Kennedy, but now we do it with the tools of the new millennium."

(Cuomo was an early proponent of trying to use the internet in his service at HUD. "If the local town has a proposal to put in a new industrial park, let them talk about it on the Internet chat room," he told CNN at the convention.)

Cuomo went on.

"If our crusade can be captured in one word, the word is justice. Not only criminal justice but economic justice and social justice and racial justice," he said, invoking LBJ, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He cheered the possibility of Dick Gephardt as speaker, and Joe Lieberman as vice president and Al Gore as president, and, in the kind of partisan terms he now strenuously avoids, he dismissed "the Republican charade in Philadelphia."

The convention charm offensive worked better on the national media than on the folks back home.

In November, the same month HUD published a 150-page brochure touting Cuomo's accomplishments, Esquire ran a long profile titled "The Perfect Prince of Cool," that said he was "already the man to beat" in New York (and said McCall was the "only man who seems nakedly eager to appear to be running for governor of New York"). 

That didn't exactly comport with what New York politicians saw in Los Angeles.

“Is anybody supporting Andrew?” wondered a state senator named Eric Schneiderman, at the convention. “Nobody in the state that I can find.”

Cuomo did have his backers, including a number of famous names, but the party establishment and much of the Democratic base was with McCall, who had become the first black official elected statewide when he was elected comptroller, and was vying to become the state's first black governor.

Cuomo shrugged it off, in talking to the Times: "His is the highest patronage office. It has to be that way. It can't be any other way. What does the Democratic Party establishment do for you? It's not a field operation. It's not your money-raising operation."

The primary turned out to be a disaster for Cuomo, with McCall opening up a big enough lead that Cuomo withdrew one week before the primary vote, trying to salvage some political capital out of what was sure to be a lopsided defeat with what he presented as a gesture of unity. (He recruited Bill Clinton and Charlie Rangel to praise his decision at the press announcement.)

When Cuomo re-emerged in 2006, aiming one rung lower at the attorney general's office, he played the part of the humbled prince.

He has been careful since becoming governor to avoid talking about things not directly related to his current job, avoiding chances for national media exposure even as he aggressively disputes unathorized versions of the Cuomo narrative locally.

That will change at some point, as 2016 draws closer, but for now, Cuomo's New York approval ratings suggest it's been a very successful strategy. He's not going to stray from it just to get five minutes on a stage in Charlotte.