In his debate Tuesday with Republican challenger Marc Molinaro, Gov. Andrew Cuomo displayed the annoyance of a man who had been reluctant to even agree to debate a challenger he claims hasn’t run a “substantive” campaign.
Cuomo came out swinging, attempting yet again to link the Dutchess County executive with President Donald Trump, and repeating his petty “Mini-Me” jab, comparing the 5-foot-8 Molinaro to the villain’s sidekick from the Austin Powers movies. This, apparently, is the sort of thing Cuomo considers “substantive.”
It’s not the governor’s job to decide whether Molinaro’s campaign has made him worthy of a debate appearance. And if Molinaro is truly as vapid as Cuomo claims, shouldn’t he be eager to expose him as such in televised debates?
Tuesday’s forum came after an acrimonious back-and-forth between the two campaigns about whether the other side was serious about debating. Molinaro has suggested holding multiple debates around the state, while Cuomo until last week appeared content with no debates at all.
After facing criticism from voters and newspaper editorial boards, Cuomo’s camp last Friday told Molinaro that the governor would be available — for a radio-only debate, at 8 a.m. Saturday. Cuomo, apparently feeling generous, even lamented that he’d have to cancel a family engagement to appear, but was willing to do so.
Molinaro balked at Cuomo’s preferred time, date and medium, suggesting the debate(s) should be broadcast on television in prime time. To be fair, Cuomo correctly noted that the debate could be replayed on the radio or online multiple times for anyone interested before the election. But let’s be honest: his attempted last-minute ultimatum was a bad-faith attempt to make Molinaro seem like the reluctant one.
“After days of ducking the debate, we’re glad Marc Molinaro has finally agreed,” Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever said, in a bit of self-congratulatory spin.
With a 25-point lead in last week’s Quinnipiac University poll, it’s easy to see why Cuomo would, to use a sports analogy, run out the clock with a ball-control offense. He raised some $35 million in campaign funds, and still has $9 million to spend, while Molinaro is down to just $200,000 after receiving minimal help from his party.
But do we really want to live in a democracy where candidates rely on advertising, not public forums, to get their message out? Cuomo can probably cruise to victory on the strength of his incumbency and his advertising budget, but his hasty, eleventh-hour debate tactic does voters a disservice. A debate in upstate New York would have been nice, as would one featuring the race’s third-party candidates, such as the one in which Cuomo participated in 2010.
Libertarian Larry Sharpe, an entrepreneur and ex-Marine, has made numerous visits to our region, showing himself to be a thoughtful and serious candidate. The campaign of Stephanie Miner, a Democrat running as an independent, hasn’t gained much traction, but her intra-party feud with Cuomo during her time as Syracuse mayor revealed legitimate gripes about Cuomo’s urban renewal policies. And while longtime Green Party gadfly Howie Hawkins is a perennial longshot, he’s an honest skeptic and good sport whose TV and radio appearances are always worth a listen.
Cuomo, to be sure, has been a relatively effective governor with a record worth defending. But by shying away from debates, he seems reluctant to do so. And he shouldn’t misinterpret his 2014 re-election as a signal from voters that he needn’t take part in one of democracy’s most important traditions.