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New York Politicians Go Head To Head In The Wild

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Summer is a strange time of year in American politics, when governors turn up at cow milking contests and high-ranking congressmen twirl cotton candy at county fairs. That may be the best way to explain why New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wound up challenging Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York City, to a rafting race on a wild river in the Adirondack Mountains.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann tagged along yesterday and sent this audio postcard.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is standing on the bank of the Indian River and he's kind of talking smack.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: We actually perfected our technique coming down the river, so the mayor's going to have his hands full.

MANN: Cuomo is one of the most ambitious politicians in America, a guy who gets talked about for the 2016 presidential race. But on this day, he's surrounded by big balloon-like inflatable rafts. The guy he's challenging is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who shows up at the edge of the wilderness wearing a Department of Sanitation T-shirt.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Do I want to be in City Hall dealing with waste management, or do I want to be here with you guys? That's easy.

MANN: Bloomberg, who's 71, and Cuomo, who's 55, are wearing baggy shorts and big puffy life-jackets like kids at summer camp. They help drag their boats toward the river.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Coming down.

MANN: As he straps on what you'd have to describe as a slightly Smurf-like blue helmet, Bloomberg grins and gestures with his paddle at the roiling water just offshore.

BLOOMBERG: If we get through this alive, we'll be happy.

MANN: So, no smack-talk from the mayor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (unintelligible)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MANN: Two of the country's most influential big-city politicians scramble aboard, sweeping away down one of the wildest rivers in the East.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAPIDS)

MANN: Each boat holds seven paddlers, with everybody digging in time against the water. This is an actual race with guys on shore with stopwatches keeping time. The rafts twist through the rapids, churning past submerged boulders.

REBECCA PALTON: Keep going.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAPIDS)

MANN: That's Rebecca Palton, one of the river guides whose job is keeping the rafts and the politicians off the rocks. There's a small flotilla of rafts on the river, some of them filled with journalists from places like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

SUSAN ARBETTER: Oh, it's absolutely magnificent.

MANN: One of the paddlers in this two-day competition is Susan Arbetter. Her day job is hosting a political radio show in Albany, New York's rough and tumble capital. This is a very different world.

ARBETTER: We see beautiful, clear water with white caps, book-ended by gorgeous green trees.

MANN: Naturally, there are plenty of political jokes in circulation. There's talk of Whitewatergate, for reporters old enough to remember the Clinton years. And in ethics-challenged New York, people are quick to question whether the race times are being recorded accurately. But it's mostly good fun. And after paddling his raft back to shore, a waterlogged Mayor Bloomberg says it was worth the long journey from Manhattan.

BLOOMBERG: Dense forests, rapids were a lot of fun to go through, but it really was very picturesque.

MANN: Governor Cuomo says the goal of the race is to let more people in New York City know about the Adirondacks. He hopes they'll visit here rather than packing off on vacation to New Hampshire or Vermont.

BLOOMBERG: I want to expose this part of the State of New York. It is a magnificent part of the state, as you can see. Tourism is a big business for us - it's a big part of the economy.

MANN: So this race is a publicity stunt but it's also a race between two very competitive politicians. According to the governor's time keepers, Cuomo's boat beat Mayor Bloomberg's raft down the river winning by just 18 seconds.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York's Adirondack Mountains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.