NEW YORK – Speaking recently in a room filled with white people, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman mentioned something about state comptroller H. Carl McCall that few have noted publicly since he became New York's Democratic nominee for governor.
"I'm obviously not saying vote for Carl McCall because he's an African-American, but I'm saying he now has become, in his own right in this election, a carrier of the American dream of equal opportunity,'' Lieberman told the residents in Queens' North Shore Towers complex.
It was a rare reference, despite the historic aspect of McCall's campaign against Republican Gov. George Pataki. McCall is the first black major-party candidate for governor in New York state; if he wins, he would be only the second black governor ever in the United States.
Some suggest race is too explosive, or that other issues supersede it.
"It's nitroglycerin,'' said Jay Severin, a veteran Republican strategist. "Once it's in play, there's no way to control it; it almost always backfires on whoever mentions it.''
That showed in last year's Democratic mayoral primary between Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer, which was marked by issues of race, including the Hispanic Ferrer's ties to the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Green, who is white, won the primary, but disunity among Democrats helped propel a stunning general election victory by Republican Michael Bloomberg, who found support from Hispanic and black voters who normally make up the Democratic base.
The Democratic gubernatorial primary also had racial undertones.
McCall's primary opponent Andrew Cuomo was quoted late last year as saying the black-Hispanic coalition that favored Ferrer was poised to divide the party.
"Carl would be the second installment in that contract, that racial contract, and that can't happen,'' The Jewish Week newspaper quoted the former federal housing secretary as saying. Cuomo, the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, later said his remark was misunderstood.
After calling it quits days before the September primary, Cuomo blamed race at least in part for his failed campaign.
"The negative here is that I was running against the first African-American. It was his turn,'' Cuomo said in an interview with The New York Times. He added that he felt limited in how he could attack McCall's record because it "would create racial problems.''
For his part, McCall has said little about race since a February 2001 dinner with black and Hispanic legislators during which he said, "We've come a long way. There's only one problem. There has only been one African-American governor in this nation's history. Next year, we're going to double that.''
Talking to the New York Association of Black Journalists last week, he was asked if race had been a factor in limiting his fund-raising. "Race is a factor in everything,'' he said, and then moved on.
One of the few references to race has come from Pataki.
While accepting a union endorsement in Chinatown last month, the two-term governor said, "I'm proud as well that the Democratic Party has made a historic move in nominating the first African-American to be the governor of this state. We should all be proud of that.''
"He can afford to be magnanimous,'' Severin said. But if McCall had made similar comments, it "would look like he's playing the race card.''
Like McCall, Douglas Wilder used a low-key approach in Virginia in 1989 when he was elected the first black U.S. governor.
"You don't ignore it. You just do the best possible job of projecting your image, your record and your concerns, showing that your concern is for all the people,'' Wilder said.
One GOP analyst said race has not been a big part of the campaign because other issues have taken center stage — Pataki's fund-raising advantage, the governor's double-digit lead in the polls and a controversy over letters that McCall wrote in passing on resumes of friends and family.
"Instead of being a pioneering African-American candidate, he's become just another politician,'' said Nelson Warfield, a Republican consultant who was Bob Dole's press secretary in 1996.