Four lecterns festooned with official campaign placards were supposed to greet the faithful at Daemen College Saturday for a debate among Republican hopefuls aiming to challenge Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in November.
But Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb of Canandaigua suddenly and mysteriously dropped out late Friday, creating a whole new dynamic for the three men left standing on the Wick Center stage. Nevertheless, former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, State Sen. John A. DeFrancisco and former Housing Commissioner Joe Holland presented a unified front by pouncing on the corruption trial of Cuomo confidant Joseph Percoco underway in New York City.
If any genuine controversy arose from the 75-minute session, it was Giambra’s refusal to promise unconditional support for whomever becomes the party’s endorsed candidate.
“It’s much too early to give you an answer to that,” Giambra said, triggering a strong undercurrent of murmurs in the crowd of about 100 Republicans.
State GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox later would label Giambra’s comments an “unfortunate mistake.”
“He has promised and absolutely pledged not to be a third party candidate,” Cox said of Giambra, who has been discussing a Reform Party candidacy. “If he does not take that pledge, he will not be the candidate.
“I don’t believe he really meant that,” Cox added. “His word is his bond.”
The chairman also said he will now ask all candidates to sign a pledge promising to support the endorsed candidate, just as he asked Donald Trump during the 2016 New York presidential primary.
Giambra spokesman Tony Farina, meanwhile, said he is not familiar with any earlier conversations, but he reiterated late Saturday that Giambra is not ready to make such a pledge.
“He can’t say at this point because he doesn’t know who the nominee is,” Farina said.
For the most part, however, as they responded to questions posed by Republican consultant and moderator Andrea Bozek, the trio came together to set their sights on Cuomo. And the Percoco trial that resumes next week in Manhattan offered a bully pulpit.
“I don’t want to help the Percocos of the world,” said DeFrancisco, a veteran lawmaker from Syracuse. “We need fundamental change where people with integrity are running government.”
Holland, a Harlem minister and attorney who lost a bid for the party’s nomination for attorney general in 1994, said Albany’s tradition of corruption has worsened under Cuomo.
“It starts with integrity in the governor’s office,” Holland said. “You set the tone from the top.”
Giambra used the Manhattan corruption trial of the governor’s close friend and aide to paint Cuomo as fixated on raising campaign cash in a “well orchestrated, well choreographed, pay-to-play operation.”
With almost $31 million in his treasury and strong poll numbers in a Democratic state, Cuomo is considered the overwhelming favorite for re-election. However, the Percoco trial could overshadow the early stages of Cuomo’s campaign for a third term. Republicans are watching the trial for opportunities that might arise from any major revelations.
Meanwhile, a different sense of uncertainty hung over the Saturday gathering in the wake of Kolb’s withdrawal. The assemblyman had garnered significant support from his home turf in Rochester and the Finger Lakes, while DeFrancisco is backed by Onondaga County and gained nine more county chairmen on Friday.
Some party sources say they remain hopeful another major figure will enter the race soon.
Those already in the race Saturday rallied around a host of traditional GOP causes. All three denounced Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion plan, with Giambra labeling it “failed public policy and corporate welfare” that he said stems from “political expediency.” They all blamed high taxes and stringent business regulations for dragging down the Upstate economy, prompting DeFrancisco to promise he would issue executive orders in his first act as governor to relax business regulations.
All three said they oppose Cuomo’s efforts to expand abortion rights, especially late term abortions – though Giambra has made his pro-choice stand central to the “moderate” image he attempts to convey.
“I’m the only candidate with a chance of winning,” he said. “The playbook we’ve been using for the last three election cycles has not worked.”
All three continued, however, to embrace many of those traditional themes. They railed against New York Medicaid costs, which they said exceed Florida’s and Texas’s combined, and they promised to explore ways to lowe the cost of health care.
Holland also touched on a sore spot for many families when he said the disabled “have been totally ignored and pushed aside.”
Giambra resurrected familiar themes from his stint as county executive, pointing to a 31 percent tax cut during his two terms in the Rath County Office Building and his push for government consolidation and mergers.
“We have 733 school districts in the State of New York. That is absurd,” he said. “I suggest there is some number between one and 733 that makes a lot more sense.”
And DeFrancisco blasted Cuomo’s new budget, now under consideration in the Senate chamber where he ranks second in the Republican hierarchy.
“This budget has $1 billion in revenue enhancements,” he said. “If you don’t have your Cuomo dictionary with you, that means taxes and fees.”
Geoff Berman, executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, issued a statement late Saturday asking why the GOP candidates focusing on Percoco did not also refer to the corruption trial of former Republican Sen. George D. Maziarz, slated to start in Albany on March 5.
“The only thing sadder than the conspiracy theories the New York Republicans tried to peddle all week was watching them try to outdo each other in a race to the bottom,” Berman said. “The governor’s record of accomplishment and commitment to revitalizing Western New York are unrivaled, and this cast of Albany insiders and lobbyists has nothing to sling but mud.”
Cox said after the session that a gubernatorial straw poll will be conducted on March 2 at the Republican convention to nominate a U.S. Senate candidate in Saratoga Springs. A convention to nominate a candidate for governor is slated for May in Manhattan, though DeFrancisco said Saturday he would like to see the choice settled sooner rather than later.