The most obscure Democratic gubernatorial primary in modern history finally made it onto the front pages. A cardboard-box kingpin with a penchant for progeny did what the son of a famous governor and the state’s only black official couldn’t do. He got some sex into a dud of a race.
Dennis Mehiel is the golden face on the commercial that aired over and over this weekend. He’s the one Carl McCall says is the greatest guy you’ve “never heard of,” wrapping his gubernatorial candidacy around his lieutenant governor designee in a televised political lip-lock. McCall is the distinguished front-runner in this 30-second ad-drama, which features exchanges of sound-bite praise, and Mehiel is the man with the money and know-how.
Instead, in New York in 2002, when a polished black with a sterling résumé finally makes a run for the state’s top job, it turns out that it’s the rich white running mate at his side who confounds tabloid orthodoxy and is the one with the two out-of-wedlock children and the deer-in-the-headlights look.
McCall’s longtime aide Steve Greenberg has already answered the most important question, acknowledging that the comptroller knew of Mehiel’s “family situation before they became allied in the campaign.” Will that judgment be seen as bad by enough Clinton-jaded Democrats to drag McCall’s high-flying campaign down? The Post has flatly asserted that McCall’s “desperate need for campaign cash” led him “to risk the fallout from Mehiel’s hidden past.” But that is a risk only a September campaign would take.
No one actually thinking about taking on George Pataki in November could hope that this story would go unexploited. It’s possible to believe—with the racial dynamics of last year’s mayoral election and Andrew Cuomo’s high negatives over his own supercharged personality—that the story might not have come out through the primary. But only a candidate so focused on September that he hasn’t begun to think about the very different electorate in November would bind himself to Mehiel in commercials that feature the Sweetheart Cups businessman so prominently he may by now be the best-known lieutenant governor candidate in memory.
If the standard for Dems wavering between McCall and Cuomo is which one has the best chance of beating Pataki, hasn’t Mehiel’s quite human “scandal” affected that calculus? Isn’t this another reason why the McCall-Mehiel ticket could become a November disaster?
Mehiel is, by numerous accounts of those who know and like him, an engaging, decent man who’s generously supported all his children, financially and paternally. Peter Vallone, the former city council speaker whose 1998 campaign for governor was chaired by Mehiel, told the Voice that he knew all about Mehiel’s kids then. “I admired him for his actions,” said Vallone, a devout Catholic. “He should be praised for living up to what he’s done. He never lied about it or concealed it. Who’s anybody else to judge? It made no difference to me.”
If this assessment matched McCall’s, where were the smarts in the comptroller’s camp when they decided to team up with Mehiel and hope his little secret stayed under wraps? Mehiel wanted to run statewide in 1998—possibly even for McCall’s job—but decided against it, perhaps chastened a bit by these difficult personal issues. So once McCall decided early this year to take the big ride with Mehiel, why didn’t he and Mehiel pick the time and the reporter and tell the story on their own terms up front, months before the primary? Why let it become a last-minute exposé?
Having botched whatever opportunity they had to shape the story early, McCall and Mehiel may be hurt by it late. McCall became the front-runner almost overnight and no one, even on his own team, could explain how the only public poll on the race swung 30 points in a month, from heavily favoring Cuomo to heavily favoring McCall. In a primary this volatile, with the small slice of Democrats who will vote deflated by the likely prospect of George Pataki soundly beating whoever wins it, any bad news could quickly change the numbers.
At the very least, the “Oh, Baby!” story, which even hit the metro front of the Times, opens the door for Cuomo to go negative on the legit McCall stuff and look almost gentlemanly for keeping it clean. In this week’s debates and ads of his own, Cuomo can now go after McCall on issues like the one raised here last week (“Carl McCall’s Secret Self”), which detailed his bizarre proxy voting on behalf of the $112 billion state pension fund, including his use of his shareholder leverage to oppose vital environmental and human rights policies.
Cuomo can’t do that if it becomes clear that he planted the Mehiel time bomb with pro-Cuomo Post columnist Fred Dicker, where it sat ticking for two weeks before Mehiel made a preemptive strike and gave it to reporters just as Dicker was ready to write. Three years ago, Mehiel reportedly ran the entire issue past his then publicists—John Marino and Dan Klores—and both are extremely close to Cuomo now, with Marino advising his campaign. Neither was taking calls on Monday, and Cuomo was denying having anything to do with leaking it, but it’s certainly still possible this grenade will blow up in any hand that tried to launch it, as Congressman Charlie Rangel was not-so-subtly warning on the eve of the attack.
On NY1 Friday night, Rangel, the top McCall surrogate, started talking about young Andrew’s rosy future in New York politics if he just goes gently into the night now, warning that Cuomo will make himself into a pariah if he decides instead to go negative. Since Dicker’s questions about Mehiel had been hovering in the wind for a week and a half, Rangel may well have been worried about a very specific negative. McCall’s aide Greenberg told the Voice that they have “no doubt that Cuomo’s camp is engaging in these personal attacks,” citing threats made directly to Mehiel by one unnamed Cuomo ally.
McCall is, of course, hardly the first gubernatorial candidate to make a potentially damaging selection for lieutenant governor. In 1994, George Pataki picked Betsy McCaughey, whose investment banking husband had claimed in divorce papers that he couldn’t go to business conferences because she’d had so many “adulterous affairs” known to his colleagues (her response was to indicate that, if she’d done it, he’d “condoned or consented to it”). Pataki’s current lieutenant governor, Mary Donohue, ended her marriage a month into office after the state police were summoned by her 10-year-old son to her home because of a still mysterious domestic dispute.
Zillionaire candidate Tom Golisano’s first choice for lieutenant governor just dropped out of this year’s race when it was revealed that he voted twice last year, using two different addresses, in possible criminal violation of the law. The first female lieutenant governor, Mary Ann Krupsak, turned on the governor who elevated her, Hugh Carey, and challenged him in 1978. Carey’s second lieutenant governor, Mario Cuomo, helped force him out of a race for a third term in 1982. Cuomo’s first lieutenant, Al Delbello, quit after 25 months, saying he couldn’t “carry on the charade of pretending I had a life.” It’s a job without a portfolio or a public profile. Yet Dennis Mehiel chased it knowing, he says, that all his hurtful history might come out. This laundry list of discards should be enough to make every gubernatorial candidate take a long look over his shoulder at anyone hungry enough to want the post, a warning Carl McCall, who ran unsuccessfully for it himself 20 years ago, might have been expected to understand.
Research assistance: Nate Schweber
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 27, 2002