ALBANY, N.Y. – Stung by the loss of the New York City mayoral election in part because of racial divisiveness, state Democrats face the possibility of the same issue infecting next year's race for governor.
Andrew Cuomo, a white candidate trying to oust Republican incumbent George Pataki, has been quoted as saying his opponent is part of a "racial contract" designed to elect minorities.
That opponent is State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, the only black ever elected to statewide office in New York.
"There has only been one African-American governor in this nation's history. Next year, we're going to double that," McCall said earlier this year.
The racial issue came to the forefront on Nov. 6 when Mark Green lost to Republican Michael Bloomberg in New York City's mayoral race, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1.
Green's loss was blamed in part on a tough primary against Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president who sought to become the first Hispanic mayor.
Some Ferrer supporters said Green's camp used racially divisive tactics. Green denied it, but in the face of Democratic disunity Bloomberg wound up with about half the Hispanic vote and a quarter of the black vote — key elements of the Democratic base.
Before the election, Ferrer, the Rev. Al Sharpton and some of the city's leading minority political figures were noticeably absent at Green events. "It is very clear that there are those forces in the Green campaign that do not take seriously the votes in our various communities," Sharpton said as he left an election-eve meeting that had been intended to iron out differences.
The day after the city's election, state Democratic Chairwoman Judith Hope called for either Cuomo or McCall to bow out to avoid a divisive primary.
"Clearly there are deadly serious warning signs for the Democratic Party next year," she explained.
Both Cuomo, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and McCall rejected her advice. Two days later, Hope announced her resignation, saying she had planned to leave anyway.
During the mayor's race, McCall was among the coalition of black and Hispanic leaders who helped Ferrer, and McCall has counted on the coalition helping him next year.
That apparently disturbs Cuomo.
"Carl would be the second installment in that contract, that racial contract, and that can't happen," Cuomo, the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, told several Jewish leaders on the night of Green's loss, according to The Jewish Week newspaper.
A McCall campaign spokeswoman called the comment divisive.
Cuomo said Tuesday he didn't remember using the phrase "racial contract." He said the thrust of his conversation was that Green lost "because of the Sharpton, the black-brown coalition not coming back to the Democratic Party."
McCall noted that politicians including Cuomo's father and Bill Clinton routinely reached out to minority communities.
"The idea of a black and Latino coalition was not an attempt to be exclusive, it was simply an attempt to reach those folks who didn't normally come out" to vote, he said.
"Freddy Ferrer was doing what every candidate does," McCall added. "But when Freddy Ferrer tried to do the same thing, it becomes interpreted as being divisive."
A statewide poll released Nov. 14 by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute showed McCall supported by 42 percent of black Democrats and Cuomo backed by 25 percent.
The same poll showed Pataki with a large lead over his challengers: 57 percent to 25 percent against Cuomo, and 56 percent to 24 percent against McCall.
Privately, Cuomo has told several Democrats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, that he believes he will be helped by his marriage to a Kennedy — Kerry, a daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — and his father's record in minority communities.
Hope's likely successor as party chair, state Assemblyman Herman Farrell, hopes the two contenders take to heart the New York city lesson.
"The punishment for stupidity is, you lose," he said.