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Cuomo Does Little to Silence Buzz About White House Ambitions

6 Mar 2017 1:09 am
By Mike Vilensky 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo took pains to stay in New York and avoid presidential speculation during his first few years in office, once even questioning if he should travel to Washington to ask for storm-recovery funds.

"If I went to Washington now, what story would you write?" Mr. Cuomo chided reporters in 2012, seeming to refer to the 2016 race ahead.

Times have changed.

Since Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race in November, Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat in his second term, has courted a national profile and done little to lower the volume on 2020 buzz.

The past several days have seen Mr. Cuomo crisscrossing continents and speaking to audiences far from the state he governs.

On Friday, USA Today published an essay on criminal justice he co-wrote with Van Jones, a former adviser to former President Barack Obama. Later that day, he flew to Florida to address a conference of trade unions. And over the weekend, he took a 24-hour trip to Israel and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"He's smart to keep his presidential engine humming, so he can shift it into high gear should he decide to enter the race," said Karen Hinton, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Mr. Cuomo.

Mr. Cuomo's staff says his focus is on New York and his next race will be his 2018 re-election campaign. They also said his recent actions weren't purely national in theme: The USA Today piece pushed a proposal in New York to lessen criminal penalties against minors; in Florida, Mr. Cuomo spoke before New York unions; and his trip to Israel came after anti-Semitic incidents, some of which occurred in New York.

But the 59-year old governor hasn't pushed back too forcefully on chatter of presidential ambitions. On Saturday, after he met with Jewish leaders at a Manhattan synagogue, he was asked if he wants to be president. "I want to be the governor of New York," he said. "And I plan on running for re-election."

Since Mrs. Clinton's loss, the governor has quietly courted advisers with national experience. A senior Cuomo administration aide spent time earlier this year recruiting former Obama staffers to consider working for Mr. Cuomo, people familiar with the efforts said. Maria Comella, the political strategist credited with engineering New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's national profile ahead of his 2016 run, has advised Mr. Cuomo in recent months.

Mr. Cuomo has proven a skilled fundraiser. He has more than $20 million in his campaign war chest. New donors include Steven Cohen, the billionaire investor who had previously backed Mr. Christie's 2016 run.

Meanwhile, the New York State Democratic Party has run some $30,000 worth of ads in which Mr. Cuomo appears with U.S. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to push a college-affordability proposal. "The overwhelming majority of the ads were shown to people in New York, with a small percentage targeting key stakeholders outside of the state to raise awareness about our efforts," said Basil Smikle, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Nearly everyone in Mr. Cuomo's circle cautioned that it was too early to know if Mr. Cuomo might have a national path to the White House in 2020.

Privately, some advisers have questioned if there is any path, amid rising populism and party polarity, for a governor considered a middle-of-the-road politician who served in former President Bill Clinton's cabinet. Others have speculated that Mr. Cuomo's brand might be back in demand after four years of Donald Trump's outsider presidency.

"The governor is positioning himself well," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who has advised Mr. Cuomo's campaigns. "He has actual accomplishments."

Mr. Cuomo's approval rating in New York recently hit 60%, the highest since the start of his second term, but national polls have shown Democrats are hungry for new blood.

Mr. Cuomo's allies and foes have observed how Mr. Christie was harmed by his associations with the Bridgegate scandal during the Republican presidential primary season, and questioned if Mr. Cuomo could face similar damage. Mr. Cuomo's former aide, Joseph Percoco, has pleaded not guilty to corruption charges stemming from his time in the Cuomo administration and could end up on trial. Mr. Cuomo hasn't been accused of wrongdoing.

Colin Reed, director of the conservative political action committee America Rising, said his group has begun training its sights on Mr. Cuomo, and Mr. Percoco's scandal could be important to its opposition efforts.

Mr. Reed said he saw it turning into a "thing...where the closest aide becomes a story of their own and carries baggage."

The speculation about Mr. Cuomo's future echoes conversations around Mr. Cuomo's late father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, who famously balked on a presidential run despite national encouragement.

"If you're Andrew Cuomo, you must be influenced by your father," Mr. Sheinkopf said.

Far from avoiding national topics, Mr. Cuomo's rhetoric has recently taken a national turn, and he has often discussed the 2016 race in his public remarks. "We just went through an election and we know the middle class is in pain," he said last week.

While the governor is expected to stay publicly mum about any White House ambitions until after 2018, his allies are not. At a rally in New York City last month, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. noted that Mr. Cuomo's remarks sounded "presidential to me."

"And when someone in the crowd said, 'Cuomo for president!'" Mr. Diaz added, "the one thing [Mr. Cuomo] did not say was, 'Hell no.'"

Write to Mike Vilensky at mike.vilensky@dowjones.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 05, 2017 20:09 ET (01:09 GMT)

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