In early September 2002, Andrew Cuomo, struggling to gain traction in a Democratic primary battle against state comptroller H. Carl McCall, visited The Jewish Week for an extensive interview. The interview was set to run alongside one with McCall when, on Sept. 3, Cuomo suddenly dropped out of the race, under pressure from fellow Democrats to avoid splitting the party and to present a united front against Republican George Pataki, who would defeat McCall to win a third term in office. As a result, the below interview was never published.
Cuomo has done very few interviews in the last eight years and declined requests from The Jewish Week during his 2006 campaigns for attorney general and again this year in his gubernatorial race against Republican challenger Carl Paladino.
He was evidently creating a carefully cultivated image after the debacle of 2002, which was largely seen as a political setback for the ambitious former housing secretary in Bill Clinton’s cabinet and adviser to his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Noteworthy in the interview that follows is that Cuomo spoke out strongly about Israel, which at the time was in the midst of the violent second intifada, as a “major concern” after both he and McCall made trips to the Jewish state at the onset of the 2002 campaign. Cuomo, who visited Israel twice that year, said that as governor would he work to expand the base of Israel’s support. In a sign of changing times, this year, Israel was never publicly mentioned by Cuomo or Paladino.
Also, Cuomo pledged then to be an “activist and progressive” in finding ways to assist non-public schools to the point of risking a court challenge.
Jewish Week: What do you think are the issues of most concern to the Jewish community?
Cuomo: I think they will be concerned about issues as New Yorkers and as Americans and also about the economy, the public education system, safety and religious freedom. Another area of concern is Israel. I am 44 years old and for my generation this [the intifada] is the most serious threat to the existence of Israel. It is galvanizing and it is mobilizing. It is a very powerful threat and a major concern.
And I also think the governor of New York is not just any other governor and New York is not just any other state. I think the governor of New York can be a powerful advocate for Israel. I understand Israel has a base of support in Washington right now and without getting political, you can always use more friends.
And when your political base of support is the religious right because of a strange confluence of events, I would like to expand that base.
I have a long relationship with Israel. I am a born-and-bred New Yorker. I was raised in a community in Queens with Jewish people. Two of my three brothers-in-law are Jewish. When I was HUD [Housing and Urban Development] secretary I started the first binational agreement with Israel where we worked together on urban issues and immigration issues, and I traveled to Israel as a representative f this nation and the president. … So I feel a connection, I feel a bond. It is something I would like to do personally and something I feel professionally the governor could do and should do.
Why did you make a second trip to Israel so close to the first?
Because I want to show solidarity. One form of support is to say, ‘I support you over there.’ Another is to show up. Tourism is down, everybody’s afraid to come, they’re canceling trips left and right, the King David Hotel is empty. You know how to help now: Come here and show that it’s not dangerous, that you’re not afraid to fly, and that’s what I did. And in a two-day trip you know how grateful they were? I saw [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, [former prime minister Ehud] Barak, [Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres, [Jerusalem mayor and future prime minister Ehud] Olmert.
Gov. Pataki has announced his intention to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn lower-court rulings finding the state’s kosher enforcement laws unconstitutional. Do you agree with that decision?
I would appeal it and find a way to be creative and dedicated to finding a way to preserve it.
Why should the state interject itself into the kosher laws, which are an internal Jewish issue? As the suit [brought by a Long Island kosher butcher] pointed out, there are differences regarding kosher laws even among the Orthodox.
You have to set the standard. As I understand the issue it is very important in the Orthodox community and it has been for many years. I would seek to protect the existing law.
Do you support efforts by the sate Legislature to create a separate school district in Kiryas Joel for children with disabilities, even though the court has held such action unconstitutional?
I would be supportive of it. This is not a Jewish issue. There are very real human social needs in many of the communities.
Affordable housing is a crisis, education is a crisis, and heath care is a crisis. Government’s responsibility is to help its citizens in crisis. That’s how I see this.
In my father’s administration we were active in housing and social-service needs. As HUD secretary I did a lot with housing and with Jewish groups. Why? Because it’s a pressing need. I understand the issues but I also understand the need for the community to receive assistance and I will pursue it.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of private school vouchers in Cleveland. Would you as governor push for them here?
I don’t believe there will ever be vouchers here because of the way the laws are written. I also believe vouchers per se are a false hope.
There is no voucher program that would really cover 100 percent of the students or 100 percent of the private opportunities. You talk about a demonstration for maybe 5 percent [of students]. We don’t need a 5-percent solution. We need an education system that works for all children …
Attorney General Spitzer wrote a memo saying that if you want to be creative, you could find a way to give assistance to schools. I would be an activist and a progressive in this matter and creative to find ways to give assistance to schools.
What type of assistance to non-public schools do you believe would be legal aside from what the state now provides — textbooks, transportation and remedial instruction?
[Spitzer] put forth a number of avenues of financial assistance that he said would not trigger unconstitutionality: teacher-assistance programs, building-related aid. Someone would have to do it and run the risk of a court challenge, and I would.
How is your character different from your father’s?
We have similarities, we have differences, but in one regard we are the same — if I believe I am right, then I believe very strongly in my position. Public service is in many ways a crusade for justice, a crusade to help people. It’s a performance results issue, not a personal issue. I know what state government can do, I ran a very large bureaucracy and I have more management and fiscal experience than McCall, Pataki, Mario Cuomo — than any of them had when they ran.
In the wake of 9/11, there are some calls for the U.S. to begin using racial profiling in a way similar to that used in Israel. What do you think?
I’m against racial profiling, as we know the concept. There are bona fide security tactics which help to target suspects — a man with no luggage buys a ticket at the last minute for an overseas flight and he happens to look like an Arab. But there are other factors also.
Where do you draw the line on profiling?
Racial profiling is based purely on race. Nothing more.
You have said Carl McCall has not used the pension fund to aggressively invest in social causes, while he says his first priority is to get the best return on the investment.
The comptroller has a $112 billion pension fund that many other comptrollers use aggressively for social pursuits. Many members of your community need affordable housing. The California Pension Fund invested much more aggressively in affordable housing. I believe the comptroller should have used the pension fund better for affordable housing. Ned Regan, the former comptroller, invested more of the pension fund in economic development than did Carl McCall.
But he said that, as a result of his investments, the fund grew the most in the nation.
That would be inaccurate in terms of performance. He is not No. 1. There are studies that say he is roughly 20 out of 50.
What do you have in mind for the role of your lieutenant governor?
I’d use him [Charlie King] as a full deputy so that you can cover more area and more issues. As an activist you can do a lot with government. You are only limited by your own time and your own energy.
Interview conducted and transcribed by Adam Dickter and Stewart Ain.