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After being approached to challenge Cuomo on WFP line, Samuels embraces help for New Roosevelt Initiative

By Edward-Isaac Dovere

July 21st will be something of a festival of the would-be lieutenant governors, as Andrew Cuomo’s running mate Robert Duffy appears at a fundraiser on behalf of his temporary opponent Bill Samuels’ New Roosevelt Initiative, held at the apartment of Dennis Mehiel, the Democratic donor who ran in the No. 2 spot under Carl McCall in 2002.

With the New Roosevelt Initiative planning to spend approximately $1.5 million on independent expenditures in up to five State Senate races—so far, its only announced target is Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada—the Duffy fundraiser marks the first formal involvement the Cuomo/Duffy campaign in state legislative races this year, aside from Cuomo asking legislators to sign his New NY Agenda pledge.

Samuels, a Democratic activist who had launched what he called a campaign for lieutenant governor and State Senate president, said he requested Duffy’s presence at a New Roosevelt Initiative fundraiser shortly after making the decision not to force what would have been a self-financed, top-of-the-ticket primary in September.

Before making the decision to drop his lieutenant governor bid, Samuels confirmed, he was approached about switching up to run against Cuomo as the gubernatorial candidate of the Working Families Party, which was forced to go into the fall without a clear candidate after Cuomo deferred on deciding whether to take its ballot line early last month.

But Samuels said that beyond having problems with some planks of the WFP agenda, he largely supports Cuomo’s announced agenda, including the emphasis on reforming Albany and a centrist approach to business issues, charter schools and backing a Constitutional convention. And getting Cuomo’s choice for lieutenant governor at a fundraiser for his organization, Samuels said, showed a shared interest in wanting to see the end of Espada’s political career, while also adding emphasis to the campaigns against two Republican incumbents from Duffy’s home turf in Rochester, State Sens. Jim Alesi and Joe Robach.

“To get Duffy achieved two objectives for me: it will show that the Democrats as a whole really want this guy out, it isn’t just the New Roosevelt Initiative,” he said of Espada, continuing, “to get the mayor of Rochester to come downstate to get involved with State Senate races, and to be able to offer field support to win at least one of those races, from my activist point of view—perfect.”

Samuels said he met with the Democratic contenders in those two races, Mary Wilmot and Robin Wilt, when they were in Manhattan last week for an event held at the Upper West Side apartment of former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum featuring Democratic women running for State Senate seats across the state. The New Roosevelt Initiative, he explained, would be offering research resources in addition to other independent expenditures in races where he and his campaign consultants at Red Horse Strategies determine they can propel someone to being a top tier contender with $250,000 in spending. (Though the Duffy event will be the first of several expected fundraisers on behalf of the New Roosevelt Initiative, most of the cash for the group will come from Samuels himself.)

Espada’s race will likely be the only one in which the group gets involved in a primary, as opposed to a general election. Though officially non-partisan, the New Roosevelt Initiative has all but ruled out backing Republicans this year. New NRI priority races could be announced as early as the end of this week. While not revealing any names, Samuels hinted that he has grown enamored of backing more upstate women whom he calls “culture changers.”

Samuels said he thinks of Duffy’s appearance at the fundraiser as the latest piece in a multifaceted effort to shape this year’s State Senate races beyond the constrictions placed on the state party and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

“Duffy didn’t have to say yes when I requested it, did he?” Samuels said. “And yet it’s independent of anything that [Senate Democratic Conference Leader John] Sampson or anyone else can do.”

Samuels said he sees significant meaning in the Cuomo campaign dispatching the lieutenant governor candidate to the event.

“I don’t speak for Cuomo, but I think the message is clear,” Samuels said, explaining that the involvement “signals clearly that we’re going to change the State Senate, even if it means going outside the structure of the party.”

Both Samuels and the Cuomo campaign denied any suggestion of quid pro quo in having Duffy appear at an event to support the New Roosevelt Initiative following Samuels’ decision to drop his challenge.

So far, many legislators have been privately complaining about what they see as Cuomo beating up on them for his own political gain, while Cuomo has himself done little to indicate he will actively campaign for State Senate candidates as Eliot Spitzer did throughout the 2006 elections.

Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto declined comment on whether the attorney general would be stepping up his involvement with State Senate candidates.

As to whether Duffy’s appearance at the event should be read as an endorsement of the New Roosevelt Initiative or its opposition to Espada, the subject of multiple investigations spearheaded by the attorney general’s office and the only candidate targeted by NRI to date, Vlasto said only, “Bill Samuels is a good Democrat trying to bring reform to Albany, and we welcome all partners in reform.”

Samuels, though a Cuomo fan, admitted that he was reserving final judgment on reform efforts and supporting a State Senate led by Democrats.

“Let’s keep our fingers crossed,” Samuels said, “we’ve been here before with Spitzer.”

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