- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Despite polls showing the job is his for the taking, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo insists he has no plans to challenge unpopular Democratic Gov.

David Paterson next year and will seek re-election to his current post.

Nevertheless, state political analysts and insiders say Mr. Cuomo, the state’s most popular Democrat, is keeping his options open about the job his father, Mario Cuomo, held for 11 years, fattening his campaign war chest and quietly reaching out to the state’s political power brokers at private dinners and meetings.

Speculation about Mr. Cuomo’s plans are only fueling national interest in what is expected to be one of the most closely watched and heavily covered governor’s races next year.

“The polls go up, the polls go down. I’m very happy being attorney general,” he said at a recent political forum in Schenectady, adding that he expects voters to keep Mr. Paterson in office.

Mr. Cuomo is building a national reputation with his aggressive pursuit of wrongdoers on Wall Street. By contrast, Mr. Paterson, the first black and first legally blind governor in state history, is one of the state’s least popular Democrats. Polls show nearly two-thirds of the voters think he does not deserve to be elected to a full four-year term.

Yet Mr. Cuomo, for the time being at least, says he has no intention of launching a potentially divisive primary challenge, even though the latest Quinnipiac University head-to-head poll shows him trouncing the governor by 61 percent to 18 percent.

In a theoretical general-election matchup, Mr. Cuomo also beats Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, by 53 percent to 36 percent.

Despite Mr. Cuomo’s demurrals, some see his supporters laying the groundwork for a challenge to Mr. Paterson, who inherited the job when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sex scandal in 2008.

For the first time last week, a top Cuomo aide hurled what many saw as a clear political broadside against the Paterson administration and perhaps the first policy salvo in an emerging gubernatorial campaign.

“The attorney general believes the state must do a better job of reducing government spending and increasing efficiencies in order to avoid tax hikes,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Bamberger told the New York Post. “The AG also believes our government needs to be more transparent in its budget processes.”

The attack against Mr. Paterson’s big-spending budget and a raft of unpopular taxes is “sure to be seen as another sign that [Mr. Cuomo is] gearing up to run for governor next year,” the Post said.

The 51-year-old Mr. Cuomo also has accelerated the pace of his investigations, which have made him the most feared law enforcement official on Wall Street — filing fraud charges against an investor who aided disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, demanding that executives at American International Group give back million-dollar bonuses, indicting two aides to the former state comptroller in a “pay-to-play” kickback scheme involving the state pension fund, and demanding the names of top Merrill Lynch executives who reaped large bonuses while the firm was receiving taxpayer bailout money.

Mr. Cuomo’s office has uncovered widespread fraud in the mortgage industry, exposed corruption in the student lending business and even launched an investigation of Mr. Spitzer that revealed a “disturbing abuse of power” in an effort to damage the reputation of then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican.

“Cuomo’s very aggressive, not unlike Eliot Spitzer, who also made his reputation as an attorney general. He’s been a very effective advocate for the people of New York,” said Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

“He wants to be governor, but I think Cuomo will wait and see what happens. He’s doing his job, defining it broadly, making the rounds around the state on policy advocacy. Meanwhile, he’s available” for higher office, Mr. Benjamin said.

Veteran state Democratic campaign strategist Hank Sheinkopf said the public is enthusiastic about the job Mr. Cuomo is doing.

“In times like these, when Wall Street has failed and people seek some kind of retribution, going after Wall Street is not a bad thing,” he said

But whether Mr. Cuomo can follow in the footsteps of his legendary father, who served three terms between 1983 and ‘94, remains to be seen, Mr. Sheinkopf said.

“First, there has to be an opportunity, and as of this moment, David Paterson has said he intends to run,” the strategist said. Still, he added, “it is a long time between now and election day in 2010.”

Democratic insiders say Mr. Cuomo has been quietly laying the groundwork to run for higher office at a time of his choosing.

One example of the behind-the-scenes campaign occurred at a private breakfast of muffins and salmon for 18 influential Democrats and prominent contributors at New York’s University Club on March 25.

Mr. Cuomo talked about the issues in New York that needed fixing and, according to one of the participants, “about the total dysfunctionality of the state government.”

His political career received a big boost when he was appointed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993 in the Clinton administration, becoming HUD secretary in 1997, when Secretary Henry Cisneros resigned the office in the midst of an FBI investigation.

However, his mistake-strewn primary campaign for governor in 2002 turned into an embarrassment, and he withdrew from the race, saying later that he had learned valuable lessons from the experience.

“That was a race he should not have run at that time. I think he would agree with that,” said Democratic State Assembly member Vivian E. Cook of Jamaica, N.Y.

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