Daniel L. Feldman

In New York State Politics on November 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm

My hostile relationship with Mario Cuomo started in 1987 when Cuomo used the no-show job scandal with Assemblywoman Gerdi Lipschutz, noted in a previous post, as the basis for a relentless attack on the ethics of the Legislature. Virtually daily, for weeks, he lambasted the Legislature, called for the establishment of an investigating commission, which, as then constituted, was designed only to attack and smear. The major daily newspapers’ editorial pages, supporting Cuomo, essentially proclaimed as dishonest any legislator who opposed it. Adam Nagourney, then of the Daily News, went to each legislator with the question, “if the bill establishing the commission came to the floor today, would you support it or oppose it?” I responded that I would support it if it were clear that the commission’s mandate would be expanded to include the executive branch as well. I suggested inquiries into any possible relationship between the Governor’s position on Westway and contributions from the construction industry, the award of managing positions in public authority bond syndications and contributions from major investment banking firms, and the like. Nagourney, of course, printed my response.

The next morning I got the only phone call from Mario Cuomo I ever received. I heard the Governor of the State of New York virtually ranting and raving on the telephone. Among other comments, he claimed that he had never attacked the Legislature. On my desk was that morning’s newspapers, quoting him as doing just that. But I could not get a word in edgewise. Finally, he screamed, “You’re going to learn what frustration means!” and hung up. While I did not tell this story to the press, I did tell it to several – hundred – other people. So the next day the story of the phone call appeared in the papers. [Sources for this story can be found in Tales from the Sausage Factory on page 338.]

Cuomo took his revenge in 1989, when I ran to become Brooklyn’s District Attorney to succeed Liz, who ran and won that year to become New York City Comptroller. My campaign had issued advertising criticizing my chief opponent, Joe Hynes, for his presidency of the Breezy Point cooperative, an organization notorious in my youth for excluding not only from home ownership, but even from visits, non-Irish Catholics from anywhere, including my childhood neighborhood, Belle Harbor, only about two miles away on the same Rockaway peninsula. By the time I ran Breezy included a few Italian-American families, and perhaps a handful of intermarried Jews or Latinos, but certainly no blacks. Cuomo used what he called my “scurrilous” attack on Hynes as his excuse for breaking his rule against endorsements in Democratic primaries.  Not only did Cuomo endorse Joe Hynes (and, I believe, as I will explain in a future blog, indirectly encourage the Appellate Division to keep a third candidate on the ballot to split my support, in violation of law), but after I lost, he publicly blamed me for a different leaflet distributed by my campaign, although I had known nothing about it.

Lambda Independent Democrats, a gay Democratic club in Brooklyn, had endorsed Hynes over me in the race. Although no other campaign leaflet went out without my prior review and approval, in the final days of the campaign someone arranged for a leaflet saying “Gay Democrats Support Joe Hynes. Who Do You Support?” to be distributed only in Borough Park, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where, presumably, homophobia could be exploited most effectively. A few weeks after my defeat, the press reported that at Cuomo’s urging, I was under investigation by the State Commission on Public Integrity for this leaflet.   The Commission resulted from the earlier campaign Cuomo had launched against the Legislature, but under the leadership of the reasonable John Feerick, at that time Dean of Fordham Law School, operated in a fairer and far less biased manner than Cuomo would apparently have preferred. Thus, nothing would come of this “investigation.”

I had consistently supported gay rights despite fairly fierce opposition from segments of my own constituency. Defeated and in debt, I was so beaten down at the time that I could not muster the will to respond. To my lasting regret, I failed to say what I should have: “I am sure that Mario Cuomo knew no more about the ‘Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo’ signs in his 1977 mayoral race against Ed Koch than I knew about the leaflet in my race. But he’s hardly in a position to criticize.”   In fact, I am by no means sure that Cuomo knew no more about that piece than I knew about the piece my campaign put out.

This story has a coda. The following January, Cuomo invited the Democratic members of the Assembly to the Mansion for an informal dinner, obviously in an attempt to improve his relationships. In the center of the room stood a glass case, containing a conciliatory letter to Cuomo from Anthony Genovese, with whom he had had some friction, accompanied by two bottles of wine Genovese had sent Cuomo. The display seemed a tasteless demonstration of Cuomo’s exercise of dominance over Genovese.

After refreshments, Cuomo made some brief remarks about his plans for the upcoming session, and then asked if any of the fifty or so legislators present had any questions. I did not raise my hand, but he called on me anyway. A slight titter went around the room, the audience being aware of the bad blood between us. I said to the group, “Well, you know I have always been one of the Governor’s favorites.” This got a bigger laugh. Then Cuomo said, “You always have been one of my favorites, except of course for a brief period a few months ago.” More chuckles. So I replied, “Well, I guess that means I have to send you a bottle of wine.” Uproar. We left it at that.

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