Former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo wants New Yorkers to view him as an "outsider" -- a challenger to the "culture of Albany" who will hold Republicans and Democrats alike responsible for an upstate economy bypassed by national economic growth.
On his first visit to Buffalo since declaring his 2002 candidacy for governor, the son of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo worked hard to cultivate that image Wednesday as he began building a case first for the Democratic nomination against Comptroller H. Carl McCall, and ultimately against Republican Gov. George E. Pataki.
"Ask the people on the street, and the only thing that matters is what the people believe," he said, "and the people believe that they have been failed by the system. You see it in the polls, you see it in the coffee shops, and you see it in how we continue to export our young people."
In a two-hour interview with The Buffalo News and later before about 150 supporters at the Troop I American Legion post on Franklin Street, the man who led the Department of Housing and Urban Development until last month said he is as disgusted with New York Democrats as he is with Republicans because of upstate's continuing economic failures. He believes state leaders "squandered their opportunity" to latch on to a period of unparalleled economic expansion under his old boss, former President Bill Clinton.
Now he says the old order represented by McCall and Pataki should be held accountable.
"That was the job of the governor and of Democratic leaders," he said. "It takes two to tango, and both sat this one out. Where were the Democrats holding (Pataki's) feet to the fire?"
Cuomo, 43, begins a 21-month quest for the governorship close to McCall in some polls and leading in others. But he trails the
comptroller in support from party leaders and many union officials, perhaps explaining his desire to be portrayed as an outsider. He says he will seek the party endorsement at its 2002 state convention, but shows no real enthusiasm given its historical failure to translate into votes.
Instead, Cuomo is building a candidacy based on his experience at HUD, where he said his job was economic development under the toughest conditions.
"I know how to do economic development and community development," he said. "I've done it in places where they couldn't -- on Indian reservations, in public housing, at Lakeview (a $100 million public housing project planned for Buffalo's West Side) where they also said it couldn't happen."
Cuomo dismisses any suggestion that the Clinton administration shares blame for upstate's lagging economy. What more could the federal government offer, he asked, than a booming national economy?
"Normally, the state comes up with a vision and a plan (to take advantage of economic conditions)," he said. "Here, the exact opposite happened."
He said McCall, as the state's top Democrat, would be "sued for malpractice" by shareholders were the state a corporation.
And he said only an outsider can challenge the "Albany establishment."
"I believe they're all too cozy; they all take care of one another," he said. "They stay away from the difficult issues because that's where they can get their hands dirty. I don't believe it's my job to protect the status quo."
The targets of Cuomo's new charges were not swayed. McCall spokeswoman Theresa Bourgeois said the comptroller has spent eight years saving taxpayers billions of dollars through investments that produced jobs.
"He has long focused his attention on investing in education, jobs and the economy, and that's what he will continue to do," she said.
And Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon called it "utterly amazing" that Cuomo cannot acknowledge the role of his father's administration in creating economic problems.
"He was at his father's side while his administration devastated the upstate economy," McKeon said. "Gov. Pataki has to work hard every day to climb out of the hole the Cuomos created.
"Clearly, we have more to do," McKeon added. "But we need to move forward and not backward."
Andrew Cuomo said he anticipates those kind of responses from Pataki, but refuses to accept them.
"OK, talk all you want about Gov. Rockefeller, Gov. Carey or Gov. Cuomo," he said. "What did you do, George? You're the one who's accountable."