ALBANY – Under growing pressure, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, never a fan of public debates with his opponents, on Friday appeared to set the stage for a quick-hit debate that he proposed be held early Saturday morning on a radio station that airs in New York City.
Not so fast said Molinaro, who for months has been urging Cuomo to debate.
The Republican candidate quickly rejected what he characterized as a haphazardly devised debate with a format put together seemingly on the fly by Cuomo and his radio interviewers. And other minor party candidates, cut out of the one-on-one plan accepted by Cuomo, called any such format unfair to them.
“I have no problem fighting against the forces of hate. I don’t. I don’t think it’s an especially constructive dialogue,’’ Cuomo told WCBS radio in New York this morning as interviewers sought to get him to commit to a one-on-one debate with Molinaro.
But then, Cuomo said, “If you want to do it Mr. Molinaro, if you want to moderate a discussion, I’ll be here.’’
Cuomo said he would be available Saturday at the “same time, same place.’’ That would be about 8 a.m. on WCBS. Cuomo said he has to travel tomorrow to visit his daughter at college so that was the time he was making available for a debate.
Molinaro, who appeared on the same station an hour later Friday morning, rejected what he characterized as a slapped-together debate to be held early on a Saturday morning on a New York City radio station. He suggested Cuomo accepted the offer because he knew it would limit his exposure in a session during which Molinaro would be expected to raise a host of controversial issues, such as ongoing Albany corruption problems.
“That’s not a debate. That’s a staged fraud,’’ Molinaro said of the offer that he said cheats many voters who won’t listen to the session.
“Let’s do it at a time when voters can hear it,’’ he said. Molinaro offered two conditions: more public notice of the debate and a guarantee that the radio debate would also be run on television.
“We are tired of a governor who creates the rules … and makes you do it his way,’’ said Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive. He said he is available any day next week. “I’m am not going to be part of a fraud,’’ he said.
A Molinaro campaign adviser, William O’Reilly, tweeted out a few minutes after Cuomo’s early Saturday morning offer to do an hour debate Monday on the same radio station – but also proposed that it be televised on WCBS television.
Republicans have been pounding Cuomo for failing to debate Molinaro. The contest also features three minor party candidates. The New York Post has twice this week had its front cover with a picture of Cuomo in a chicken suit for his refusal to so far debate. “Cuomo still a chicken,’’ said the headline on Friday's front cover of The Post. On Saturday, the paper's front page again had Cuomo in the bright yellow chicken costume. ""Cuomo pretends not to be a chicken,'' the headline states. The paper's debate prodding seemed to be getting under Cuomo's skin; both the governor and a spokeswoman on Friday offered criticism of the Post's front page artwork decisions.
When asked on WCBS radio if he would debate, Cuomo initially appeared to shoot down the idea. “Look, in this crazy political environment where everything is politics, everything is politics, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s all baloney,’’ he said.
Cuomo said Molinaro and his supporters “don’t actually want a debate” but want to have the issue of Cuomo not debating kept alive. He said Molinaro did not debate his primary opponents, all of whom dropped out before the GOP convention. Cuomo noted one of his predecessors, Republican George Pataki, did not debate one of his opponents. He did not mention that his father refused to debate Pataki when he ran, and lost, to the former state senator in 1994.
“It’s all partisan politics … He has nothing else to say,’’ Cuomo said of Molinaro.
Pressed by the WCBS interviewers, Cuomo appeared to throw in the towel. “There has to be a moderator who keeps the conversation relatively substantive rather than what has been happening, which is the spewing of vileness and hatred,’’ he said.
“Call it a debate if you want. Call it whatever you want. I’ll be here,’’ Cuomo said.
Molinaro was dismissive."On what planet does the incumbent governor get to dictate that voters come crawling to him at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning with no notice?" he told the radio station.
Curiously, Cuomo departed from his past gubernatorial campaigns when he insisted any debates include every candidate running for governor. This year, there are five candidates, including Stephanie Miner, the former Syracuse mayor who Cuomo selected to be co-chair of the state Democratic Party before the two had a falling out in 2013. Miner has been especially critical of Cuomo on issues including government corruption and upstate economic development. (The other candidates are Howie Hawkins of the Green Party and Larry Sharpe of the Libertarian Party.)
Miner Friday morning said a debate must be accessible to all New Yorkers. "It would be a disservice to citizens and democracy to have a gubernatorial election without at least one televised debate featuring all candidates. Citizens deserve civil discourse and the opportunity to hear from people who want their votes,'' she said.
One government watchdog group sought to press its own solution. The League of Women Voters on Friday formally invited all gubernatorial candidates to a debate in Albany during the last week of October. It said the event would be streamed on multiple social media platforms and all media would be invited.
“This debate will take place on a weekend during the evening so that New Yorkers have the opportunity to watch,’’ the League said Friday afternoon.
Within an hour of of the group making its debate offer public, four of the candidates – Molinaro, Miner, Hawkins and Sharpe – said they had accepted the Albany debate offer. The Cuomo campaign respond when asked if Cuomo would accept that debate offer.
Meanwhile, Molinaro was on the road to Rochester where he stepped up his attacks on Cuomo for trying to pull off what his campaign calls a political stunt.
“I will consistently say yes to a debate, not to a staged production,’’ Molinaro said. He added that Cuomo for too long has been able to set the terms for political debates – where, when and even the temperature of the rooms where gubernatorial debates are held.
“The minute you succumb to a bully is when you lose,’’ Molinaro said. He added: "I'm not going to be a political prostitute.''
After Molinaro rejected the hastily arranged debate meeting Cuomo's demands, the rhetorical maneuverings continued for hours Friday. The Cuomo campaign sought to portray Molinaro as unwilling to live up to his past vows to debate Cuomo anywhere. Dani Lever, a Cuomo campaign spokeswoman, called it "an absurd excuse" by Molinaro that voters should be given more advanced notice for a gubernatorial debate. She said WCBS would make the debate available to other stations and that voters can download the debate and listen on their own schedules.
"This situation vindicates what the governor has said all along, which is Mr. Molinaro only wants to 'debate the debate,' '' she said.