Rick Lazio had Bill Belichick-like palpitations this week.
The GOP gubernatorial candidate rushed to the defense of incumbent Democratic governor David Paterson twice, issuing statements railing about the New York Times, and telegraphing that he’s as afraid of Andrew Cuomo as Belichick famously was, back in November, of Peyton Manning.
New England coach and Super Bowl wizard Belichick went for first down on his own 28-yard line, up 34-28, rather than punt to the Indianapolis Colts and give Manning the ball, probably around his own 30, with two minutes to play. That’s fear. Every football pundit in America agreed it was one odd decision, and when the Patriots didn’t get the first down, Manning scored to win 35-34.
Lazio, the former Suffolk congressman who has all but won the GOP nomination, began frantically trying to prop up Paterson last week, spooked by news reports that Paterson might punt to Cuomo. Combating the rampant speculation that the Times was about to drop a blockbuster story, Lazio sent a letter to Times editor Bill Keller begging the paper to “stop the psychological warfare on Governor Paterson.” Lazio demanded that the Times “confirm” the much ballyhooed and as yet unseen piece, or “stop this rumor mongering right now,” as if newspapers issue notices of when they are or aren’t working on a story about a public official.
The transparent purpose of Lazio’s plea was to try to keep Paterson alive for a few more months at least, hoping that Paterson’s insistence on running might discourage Cuomo, who took hits in 2002 when he ran against another leading black Democratic candidate, Carl McCall, in the gubernatorial primary. At a minimum, Lazio is clearly hoping that Cuomo will be damaged in a primary against Paterson, which every poll indicates he would win by a wide margin. If Paterson quits, Lazio gets no racially divisive primary and has to face a Cuomo ready to go the length of the field in a two-month drive next fall.
Lazio and Cuomo have a long and sometimes combustible history since he was the chair of the House housing committee for all the years that Cuomo was the Clinton Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
The irony is that Lazio went to Congress in 1992, defeating 18-year Democratic incumbent Tom Downey by fanning the flames of one of the biggest hoax scandals of all time, the overdrafts Downey had at a House bank. No money was missing, but Downey, like countless other congressmen, had written checks on his account that exceeded his deposits. Since then, with the advent of debit cards and bounce protection plans, millions of Americans now do what Downey did. Lazio’s last employer, JPMorgan Chase, feasts on overdraft debit card fees.