ALBANY – Can political placards and lawn signs be returned for a refund?
Many left-of-center Democrats are hoping that is what Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be asking in September if they have their way and his choice for a running mate, Erie County’s Kathy Hochul, is defeated in a party primary.
For that to happen might take some considerable political miracles. But Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor seeking a primary bid against Hochul, says he believes there is enough uneasiness with Cuomo among liberal and many moderate Democrats that he has a chance to block Hochul’s path to be the governor’s running mate in November.
“It depends if the facts get out about Hochul and if voters believe they can vote their conscience," Wu said in an interview last week. “We still have secret ballots and … Primaries have proven extremely difficult to control around this country."
The premise, if not the execution, is simple: Wu, taking advantage of very low voter turnout and tapping into his Asian-American roots while pointing out Hochul’s right-of-center positions, beats Hochul. That would force Cuomo to run with Wu as his running mate on the Democratic line in November.
First things first: forcing a primary.
On Thursday, Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor seeking to challenge Cuomo with Wu as her running mate in the Democratic primary, mailed to the state Board of Elections more than 45,000 signatures on their nominating petition. If at least 15,000 of the signatures are valid, then Cuomo would have a separate primary contest against Teachout and Hochul would run against Wu. The winners in those Democratic primary races then run as a single team in November.
Democrats close to the Cuomo campaign say they are unfazed by the Wu-beats-Hochul strategy, and insist that Hochul, backed by Cuomo, will have the money, foot soldiers and base to easily dispense with Wu if there is a primary.
That confidence will be tested this week. Cuomo’s campaign, or more likely his surrogates, is expected to challenge the signatures Teachout and Wu submitted. If the challenge is successful before election board officials and the courts, there would be no primary.
For Cuomo, there is far more to worry about than Hochul.
Consider: if Wu were to beat Hochul and join Cuomo on the Democratic line, it would mean Cuomo could not count all the votes he would receive for governor on two other lines he’s running on: the Independence and Working Families parties. That is because Wu is not on those other lines.
In 2010, Cuomo got 301,000 votes from those two lines.
Hochul, who has shied away from media interviews since being tapped by Cuomo in May, declined comment through a spokesman. State Democratic Party officials, who have been serving as responders for the Cuomo campaign, also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
History of divided team
This being New York politics, there is some irony of sorts at play. In 1982, the governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, beat Ed Koch in the Democratic primary for governor with 53 percent of the vote. But Cuomo’s running mate in the primary, Carl McCall, lost to Al DelBello, who was Koch’s running mate; DelBello got 58 percent of the vote. Cuomo was then forced to run with DelBello.
“I remember it very well," DelBello said last week when asked to recall primary night 1982.
“I felt exhilarated. Then I went over to greet Mario Cuomo who was at another hotel on election night. Let me just stop at that point," DelBello said not finishing the story.
How did Cuomo treat him during the campaign, which the two would go on to win that year?
“You will never see a piece of literature that says ‘Cuomo DelBello,’ DelBello said.
Two years into office, after being cut out of any duties, DelBello quit in early 1985, saying he was bored.
“I did the best I could. I tried to be very helpful. It just didn’t work out," DelBello said in an interview last week.
As for Wu finding the right alignments to beat Hochul, DelBello said “legally, it can happen."
But he wondered how Teachout and Wu, with limited name recognition and vastly underfunded compared to Cuomo, can pull it off.
“They really have to be able to go across this state. You don’t run a primary campaign without touching the hands of voters. I don’t know if they have that willingness," he said.
Factors in Wu strategy
Promoters of the Wu-beating-Hochul theory point to several factors at play.
There are more than 700,000 Chinese Americans in the New York City area, and Wu – whose father, a scientist, is an immigrant from Taiwan – already has been actively courting Asian-American political clubs and leaders.
Creator of the term “net neutrality," Wu is also heavily wired into the technology industry, and he counted several technology executives helping his fledgling operation to raise money and support.
A Democratic activist who has helped run statewide campaigns said Wu will be able to tap into Asian-Americans who question why they have no major voice in the upper reaches of state government. The activist noted that Teachout and Wu won’t come close to Cuomo’s campaign money - already topping $33 million. But they already are well under way in deploying various social media formats to reach voters. Beyond Wu’s deep ties to the technology industry, Teachout was the online organizing director for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid.
“They can run a high-tech, low-budget campaign," said the Democrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Moreover, Wu could tap into the “mischief vote," the Democrat said.
For instance, teachers around the state, many of whom are angry over Cuomo education policies, have helped Teachout and Wu gather ballot signatures.
Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, for instance, asked members to carry petitions for Teachout and Wu.
In a memo to union members, Rumore said: “Let’s send a message to the Governor - No Charter Schools, stop cutting educational funding,
your call for a ‘death penalty’ for a so called ‘failing school’ is insulting.”
Wu’s attacks on Hochul
Still, like others, the Democratic activist called Wu’s chances “a long shot."
The Wu victory theory also counts on another traditionally low Democratic primary turnout, especially upstate, where Hochul could run strong, and the possibility of a couple of races in Queens involving Asian-American candidates that would help drive up the Asian-American turnout.
Wu also claims more than just help from liberal Democrats. He says he is a strong small-business supporter and believes such firms are over-regulated. He told a public radio interviewer last week that he is open to the idea of examining changes long sought by businesses to the union-backed laws known as the Scaffold Law and Triborough Amendment. Critics say those laws hurt job creation efforts.
Wu’s main attacks on Hochul include her opposition to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and her counter-plan, which she devised while serving as Erie County Clerk, to tip off law enforcement if any illegal immigrants tried to get a license. Spitzer’s proposal eventually was shelved.
Additionally, Wu is making much of Hochul’s endorsement by the National Rifle Association in her failed 2012 congressional re-election bid.
“When you add it all up, Kathy Hochul has a terrific record for the Texas Republican Party," said Wu, who served as a clerk to a U.S. Supreme Court judge and as an adviser to the Federal Trade Commission from 2011 to 2012.
A Democratic operative last week said party insiders are watching to see how hard Cuomo forces try to keep Teachout and Wu off the primary ballot. Some wonder if they will just try to ignore the two and then unleash a massive advertising campaign featuring Cuomo and Hochul in the final week of a primary campaign.
Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, said Wu comes to a potential primary with little name recognition and a shortage of funds, compared to the Cuomo/Hochul team. And unlike DelBello, who had been the mayor of Yonkers and Westchester County Executive before the 1982 race, Wu has no similar, established base of Democratic support.
“I think it’s highly improbable, but it’s not impossible," Muzzio said of Wu’s chances.