Cuomo Speech Disappoints Powerful L.A. Democrats

If New York Gov. Mario Cuomo decides to enter the 1988 presidential race, he will have work to do with some major California Democrats who heard him speak Wednesday night in Los Angeles. As one of them put it Thursday: “He bombed.”

There were high expectations for Cuomo’s visit because it was the first of a series of trips he is making since he began to seek advice about whether he should enter the presidential race. But his speech touched on no national or foreign policy issues and dwelt instead on platitudes about the American dream and need for community.

One Los Angeles Democrat described the speech as “patronizing,” and others said his performance was “a missed opportunity.”

Given the enormous amounts of money that are raised by presidential candidates in California, such reactions could prove troublesome for Cuomo if he decides to run for the Democratic nomination. He recently sought the advice of national political consultants and says he will decide by the end of this month whether he wants to explore the 1988 race, already well under way.

Cuomo’s performance in Los Angeles, one Democrat said, demonstrated the perils of being in “the Twilight Zone of indecision about whether or not to run for President.”

“There were expectations, given the unusual curiosity about Mario Cuomo, and he was disappointing,” said University of California Regent Stanley K. Sheinbaum, who has helped many candidates raise money over the years.

“The speech needed more substance because that was a very sophisticated crowd,” said Los Angeles Democratic strategist Mickey Kantor, who has not decided which candidate to support in 1988 and who, like many others, went to hear Cuomo speak “out of immense curiosity about this man.”

Cuomo spoke to 800 people at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the 15th anniversary of the Center for Law in the Public Interest. The crowd was a mix of public officials, powerful lawyers, entertainment figures, philanthropists, publishing executives and fund-raising professionals–”about as impressive a collection of community leaders and opinion makers as you could gather in one room in California,” to use Kantor’s description.

They included Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, former Assistant Secretary of State Warren Christopher and such influential Los Angeles lawyers as Frank Wheat, who was honored for his work with the Center for Law.

“It was a missed opportunity,” Kantor said. “That crowd does not need to be preached at about the opening of possibilities in America,” he added, referring to a favorite Cuomo theme, the symbolic significance of the Statue of Liberty.

“Lift your lamp, Lady,” Cuomo said of the statue that has welcomed millions of immigrants to America. “Teach us need for one another. Teach us the truth of love, the wisdom of love.”

‘The Silent Compact’

As he often does in his speeches, Cuomo also urged Americans to have “a commitment to the idea of community, the silent compact that makes America work.”

Unlike two other national Democrats who have visited California in recent weeks–former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden–Cuomo did not offer his assessment of the country in the seventh year of the Reagan presidency, and he did not touch on foreign affairs, trade, the budget deficit or education issues.

John Phillips, co-director of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, said Thursday that when Cuomo accepted the center’s invitation, “he was very careful to say that he did not want to upstage our event simply because of the speculation that he might run for President. I can see why people who wanted him to lay out a national agenda were disappointed, but that’s not what he came here to do.”

A Cuomo spokesman said Thursday the governor did not come to California to make a presidential campaign speech.

“I think you could question the reasonableness of criticizing someone for not accomplishing what they did not set out to do,” Cuomo aide Tom Conroy said. “The governor cannot control expectations based on speculation.”

Kantor said, “Cuomo is in the Twilight Zone of indecision about whether or not to run for President. If you come out and don’t pay attention to national issues, you’re accused of being isolated or arrogant. If you address those issues, you raise hopes that you may not be ready to fulfill.”

2 Advance Men

Other Democrats noted that Cuomo had helped raise expectations about his Los Angeles visit. He sent out two advance men to, in Cuomo’s words, “pay their respects” to key Democrats. Word of that development–coupled with Cuomo’s reputation as an orator–lured reporters from all over the country and the state.

Also, interest in Cuomo in California was heightened recently when a Los Angeles Times Poll found that he was the first choice of delegates to the state Democratic convention in January.

Not everyone was unhappy with Cuomo’s speech Wednesday. Philanthropist and nuclear freeze advocate Harold Willens, one of the few California Democrats to meet privately with Cuomo, said, “I thought his speech was very appropriate because it reflected the values that I believe this country needs.”

Kantor said Cuomo “has the best rhetorical style in American politics” but said many in the dinner audience wanted “more issue-oriented material. For instance, he could have done a major speech on the judiciary, because he has the credibility to attack Ronald Reagan’s judicial appointments.”

Max Palevsky, a businessman and philanthropist who has raised big sums for Democrats in the past, said Thursday, “I thought the speech was patronizing. The reaction at my table after it was over was, ‘Ronald Reagan could have given that speech.’ You know, ‘aren’t we pleased with how great our country is?’ For an audience of that sophistication, it was the wrong speech.”

Palevsky is uncommitted in the 1988 Democratic sweepstakes.

‘Blow an Opportunity’

Another Democrat, who asked that his name not be used, said he had gone to the dinner to look Cuomo over and “couldn’t believe he would blow an opportunity like that. He bombed.”

A professional fund raiser, who also requested anonymity, said after the speech, “If I was doing Cuomo’s fund-raising in California, I would have a lot of trouble selling him now. I don’t think he turned anybody off, but expectations were high and he just didn’t turn anybody on.”

Both Kantor and Sheinbaum said, however, that they thought Cuomo has political potential in California despite criticism of his performance Wednesday.

“He’s got to come back and be more specific,” said Sheinbaum, who sat at Cuomo’s table at the dinner.

Said Kantor, “The problem with playing hard to get is that you get very few opportunities to impress people, so it is taking a big chance when you come out of the chute.”

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