N.Y. Gubernatorial Candidates Cuomo, McCall Face Off in Debate

State Comptroller H. Carl McCall declined Sunday to outline what he thought might be the good qualities of his opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor, former federal Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo said McCall had done less with investments from the huge state pension fund that he controls than his predecessor as comptroller, Republican Edward Regan.

"He will say nice things about himself," McCall said when pressed during the first debate between the two Democrats.

McCall said that while Cuomo "has a lot of good qualities," he wanted to talk about himself and his proposals to improve state government.

"I think my opponent is a good man," said Cuomo while also insisting he preferred to talk about issues, not personalities.

The exchange came as Cuomo, the elder son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and McCall, the only black candidate ever elected to statewide office in New York, took the next step in what has been an often bruising campaign. The Democratic primary is Sept. 10 with the winner challenging Republican Gov. George Pataki's bid for a third term.

During the debate, the two said they were opposed to any new taxes; were opposed to the death penalty, but saw no possibility of repealing it; and would try to preserve New York City's $1.50 subway fare.

They said they favored restoring fares for the Staten Island ferry, but after the debate both said they had misunderstood the question and were really opposed to new ferry tolls.

In what was mostly a gentlemanly debate, Cuomo did say at one point that "the comptroller could have used the pension better. Ned Regan did more than he did."

McCall aides were quick to note after the debate that while the percentage of pension fund money invested in New York under McCall may be slightly less than under Regan, the dollar amount had almost doubled.

The two spent much of their time criticizing Pataki, especially when it came to the governor winning support from unions and other normally Democratic groups.

"He's got a goodie-bag and is going around giving everyone goodies," McCall said.

"He uses the state budget to curry political favor," Cuomo said.

Once the debate was over, McCall was asked to note any differences he had detected between his positions and those of Cuomo.

"I really wasn't paying that much attention to what his positions were," the comptroller said. "I was really focusing on the message I wanted to get to the thousands of people watching."

The debate was broadcast live from 11 a.m. until noon from the studios of WCBS-TV in New York City. It was carried live by C-Span, among others.

A statewide poll released last week by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute had McCall leading Cuomo among likely Democratic voters, 47 percent to 31 percent. Cuomo aides said at the time they felt the race was closer than that, but made no claims their candidate was ahead.

Such polls have found that voters view Cuomo as less likable than McCall, a possible reflection of his reputation for aggressiveness.

One goal of Cuomo in the debate, according to aides, was to soften his image. McCall aides said the comptroller had hoped not be drawn into sharp exchanges that would do anything to tarnish his image as a likable fellow with the experience to be governor.

McCall, 66, is an ordained minister, a former state senator, ex-deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former president of the New York City Board of Education and was a vice president at Citibank. He has been state comptroller for more than eight years.

The younger Cuomo, 44, is a lawyer whose resume includes a stint as an assistant to Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, private practice and the founding of what has become that nation's largest non-profit housing and social services program for the homeless. He took a top job with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993 as part of the new Clinton administration and became HUD secretary in 1997. He was also, for years, his father's top political adviser.

The elder Cuomo, seeking a fourth term, was ousted by Pataki in 1994.

While McCall has the backing of most top New York Democrats, Cuomo has the support of his own family and the Kennedy political clan. He is married to the former Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of the late New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

McCall is married to Joyce Brown, president of the State University of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and a former New York City deputy mayor.