By Sydney H. Schanberg
First published in Newsday, November 6, 1990
The other day, one of the candidates for governor of New York dropped by this office to display his wares. The state, he said, was in a terrible mess, and it could be cleaned up by only one thing: “new vision.”
I know it was impolite, but my eyes clouded over. It wasn’t intentional, just an involuntary tic that had been bred into my synapses by the thousands of times that those eyes had read the lips of candidates who promised to solve everything from crime to flatulence with “new vision.”
As all of us know, and too few will act upon, today is Election Day in this nation, the day when any vision on the part of a candidate, be it old or new, is reached for by the citizenry as assiduously as conservationists search for the snail darter.
The pollsters and others who ring doorbells tell us that an angry sentiment has arisen in the land to throw the bums out. Perhaps, but the betting in this corner is that when the dirt settles, 90 percent of the incumbents will still be in office. Not because they are admired or respected or beloved, but because people have grown cynical about the possibility that there’s anything better out there, waiting to lift us up with “new vision.”
Television has brought us instantaneously into contact with the clay feet of our political process. Television isn’t the villain, it’s merely the mirror. When it was only newspapers and radio, people could sit at home and set their imaginations in motion to conjure up idealized pictures of who the candidates were. Now the pictures of the tomfoolery come animated into our homes from atop the television stand.
Nonetheless, not to vote is a sour capitulation, because candidates of character and decency do exist. Our cynicism should not obliterate our common sense.
Here in New York, the race for governor is Cuomo vs. Cuomo. The outcome not being in doubt, the only question is which Mario Cuomo will emerge for a third term. Will it be the stunning orator and teacher who could also be so much greater a doer if he were willing to risk some of his popularity by committing himself to controversial battles? Or will it be instead the careful, loner politician who strives mightily to veer away from trouble and stay above the fray?
So far, he has chosen the latter course. Though he is one of the best of the national littler, he has disappointed.
Consider his strategy on campaign contributions. He favors public financing, he says, but he will not act unilaterally and set stringent limits on his donations. He contends that this wouldn’t set an example because the state Republicans would refuse to follow suit, putting him at a disadvantage. Not a convincing argument, particularly in a year when he has no viable opposition.
Also unconvincing is his constant use of the Republican-controlled state Senate as the explanation for so many of his legislative failures. While he is factual when he notes that the Republicans have blocked such initiatives as tighter ethics laws, public campaign financing and programs for low-income housing, it is not entirely clear that he has staked much of his political capital on trying to overcome this GOP resistance.
When Cuomo’s own ethics panel, the Feerick Commission, wound up business two months ago after three years of hearings and investigations, it said the governor had not done enough. The commission’s chairman, John Feerick, dean of Fordham Law School, exhorted Cuomo to “lead by example” by voluntarily restricting contributions to his re-election campaign fund and by calling a special session of the Legislature to press for a stronger ethics and disclosure law.
Cuomo responded by pointing again at the Senate Republicans as the stumbling block to these proposals. But again this is only half an answer. The other half has to do with how hard Cuomo has worked to overturn Republican senators at the polls and create a Democratic majority in that upper house to match the one in the state Assembly. Cuomo has argued repeatedly that if only the Democrats controlled both houses he could do all the things he is criticized for falling short on.
Yet when the Democrats asked him to shift some of the money from his overflowing campaign coffers into state Senate races, he refused. He said this would break faith with his contributors. So though he has personally campaigned for Democratic Senate candidates, he has diverted none of his funds to them. Many of these candidates, meanwhile, were forced to borrow money for the final stages of their campaigns.
It is not unreasonable to wonder whether it would also break faith with the people who gave money to re-elect Cuomo as governor if he were to run for president two years from now and transfer the remaining gubernatorial funds to a presidential campaign chest.
Cuomo raised $8.4 million for his gubernatorial race. He will likely end up with $3 million to $4 million left over. A substantial portion of that money, under federal election rules, could be transferred to a presidential campaign.
The governor probably wonders why, if he’s rated in the top 5 percent of the political class, he is chewed on so regularly by the likes of me.
Maybe because, in a triumph of optimism over experience, the voters are still looking for vision.