ALBANY – Twenty years ago, the campaign of then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo used a volunteer dressed up in a chicken outfit to appear at several events held by his Republican challenger, George E. Pataki.
Pataki, according to Cuomo forces, was afraid to debate.
A generation later, the tables are turned, and Republicans, as well as current Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Democratic primary opponent, are going after Mario Cuomo’s son for refusing – at least so far – to debate.
No chicken suit this time. Instead, Republicans are going back to a visual from a 1939 movie classic to make their point.
Considerably ahead in the polls, and even more ahead in the race for campaign cash, the governor apparently does not see the need to give his opponents a chance make political inroads.
Cuomo, known for his hands-on style and centralized power, especially in his own political campaigns, again Tuesday sought to put distance between himself and the real decision-makers in his campaign on the issue of whether he will debate.
During an Adirondacks event, Cuomo was asked by a reporter about participating in a debate.
“I’m going to leave that to the campaigns to work through, and my campaign will be talking to my rivals’ campaign, and they’ll figure it out, I’m sure,” Cuomo responded.
He did not say when that conversation might occur, or with which campaign or campaigns.
Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor who is challenging Cuomo in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary, has been hounding Cuomo for weeks to debate her. Far behind in the polls, Teachout, who has said Cuomo has an obligation to voters to debate, clearly hopes a debate could present opportunities for her to try to break out against the governor and for him to risk making any gaffes.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive who is challenging Cuomo in the Nov. 4 general election, has demanded a one-on-one debate with Cuomo. He has issued an “anytime, anywhere” challenge and has proposed debates in all regions of the state between now and Election Day.
But Astorino’s phone has not been ringing with any acceptance of his offer by Cuomo.
For now, Astorino and Teachout have agreed to debate each other Sept. 4 on a Manhattan radio station. Astorino is not facing a GOP primary opponent.
It’s all a bit of a replay, minus the chicken outfit, on the 1994 races between Cuomo’s father and Pataki. In that campaign, Pataki insisted he would debate Mario Cuomo one-on-one, but the governor refused, saying he wanted all candidates included – a move that Republicans dismissed as a way to give him cover in a live debate format. Pataki would go on to win that election and deny Cuomo a fourth term.
There was a similar scenario in 2010, when Andrew Cuomo sidestepped debate challenges by Buffalo businessman Carl P. Paladino, the Republican gubernatorial nominee. He eventually agreed, but only if minor party candidates were included.
In the end, the debate featured seven candidates, with Cuomo and Paladino onstage though separated during a 90-minute session that left little time for any real interplay.
The state Republican Party this week turned to its photo-editing software to superimpose Cuomo’s face over that of Bert Lahr playing the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” and accompany it with the hashtag “#cowardlycuomo.”
Teachout, who wants a debate to challenge what she says is Cuomo’s too-cozy relations with Republicans, is scheduled to be in Buffalo this evening – a precise location was not yet announced – on the first day of a statewide bus tour.
Her plans for the day also include a stop at a Pennsylvania hydrofracking site. Teachout opposes the natural gas drilling process.