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State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, with a growing campaign chest and an impressive array of Democratic Party leaders already supporting him, said Thursday he will be a candidate for governor in 2002.

Seeking to quell concerns among some Democrats who believe McCall, 65, may try to keep his political options open, especially after former federal housing secretary Andrew Cuomo this week announced his plans to also run for the office, the comptroller on Thursday was determined to leave no wiggle room.

"I'm running. Period," McCall, the first African-American elected to statewide office in New York, said in an interview. Several hours later, he was the featured guest at a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser in the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, surrounded by a who's who of Democratic Party leaders. The event was to raise $1 million.

McCall, an ordained minister, will preach Sunday in two Buffalo churches. Those appearances seek to highlight his strong support in the African-American community and in upstate -- a region that has become crucial for candidates to woo if they are to win in general elections.

As comptroller, McCall is the sole trustee of a $125 million pension fund for state and local government retirees. The job has enormous influence on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms.

He said he feels an obligation to run for governor.

"I just think it would be irresponsible for me to have all these opportunities and sit on them or walk away and say, 'Gee, I've had a good time,' " McCall said. He is Stouting his long resume of private and public-sector jobs as the experience needed for the governor's office.

McCall believes New Yorkers are ready to deny a third term to Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, who has indicated he will run in 2002. McCall said New York has been "just kind of floating" under the Pataki administration, which he said was blessed by a strong national economy.

McCall, sounding like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her 2000 bid, said his campaign will focus on the souring upstate economy, high prescription drug prices for elderly and what he said is the unfair way in which public schools are funded by Albany. He said Pataki's recent decision to appeal a court case that attacked the education funding formula in New York shows the governor's inability "to provide the focus" and "sustained leadership" needed for the job.

But before Pataki, McCall faces Cuomo, 43, son of former governor Mario M. Cuomo, whom Pataki beat in 1994. McCall declined to discuss Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo on Monday used a "welcoming home" party with friends and family members in Manhattan to say he is a candidate for governor.

A Pataki spokesman cited the governor's record tax cuts, job gains, a lower crime rate and increased money for education and environmental programs.

"Carl McCall's political ambitions have apparently made him overlook the fact that New York State is a far better, safer and more prosperous place today because of the policies of Gov. Pataki," said the spokesman, Joseph Conway.

Primary could be damaging

Combative primaries can have mixed results for the victor. For those who have gone on to election victories, primaries give candidates a high-visibility platform -- and lots of free press attention -- to take against the other party's opponent. Mario Cuomo's 1982 primary race against former New York Mayor Ed Koch helped propel him into office. But, as is the case with many Democratic primaries, the victor sometimes comes out too battered and broke to run an effective election campaign.

With McCall and Cuomo starting early -- more than 21 months before the 2002 primary election -- many Democrats fear the eventual winner could be too bruised to challenge Pataki.

"Starting so early, it's going to be divisive. My concern is to keep it from being damaging," said Erie County Democratic Party Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, who is straddling the Cuomo/McCall fence.

Pigeon accused Cuomo and his backers of taking early shots at McCall.

"I just hope the rhetoric cools down and people concentrate on their positive aspects and raising money," Pigeon said.

Upstate in spotlight

Republicans, meanwhile, are smiling at the prospect of a divisive Democratic primary. They hope rank-and-file Democrats will be turned off by the Cuomo-McCall race.

"In a state with 2.1 million more Democrats than Republicans, any time you can disenfranchise an enrolled Democrat, either so they vote Republican or don't vote at all, that is to our advantage," said Robert Davis, Erie County Republican Party chairman.

"Primaries are divisive. They are expensive. They are inevitable. If you have them, you have them," McCall said.

For his part, Cuomo declined to criticize McCall on Thursday, saying such aspects of political campaigns are "destructive -- and irrelevant" to voters.

"They think the campaign should be about them, not about me, not about George, not about Carl," he said.

Like McCall, Cuomo focused his efforts on the upstate economy, criticizing the Pataki administration for not doing more to take advantage of the past decade of record national growth.

"Why didn't the upstate economy do better? Where was the leadership? Where was the creativity?" Cuomo said.

Cuomo cites his record

He also dismissed those who say he won't be able to appeal to African-American voters, who, minority leaders say, will become empowered by McCall's candidacy. He said he has a long record of assisting blacks with housing opportunities and fighting discrimination during his seven years at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I don't believe people are going to vote on a racial basis," Cuomo said.

McCall, whose mother was on welfare during part of his childhood in Boston, has been president of the New York City Board of Education, a state senator, an executive with Citibank, a deputy ambassador at the United Nations and president of a minority-owned broadcasting company.

He ran for lieutenant governor in 1982, losing to Alfred DelBello.

Both DelBello and Jamestown's Stan Lundine, who also served as lieutenant governor under Mario Cuomo, are backing McCall's candidacy.

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