Mario Cuomo, Governor and Galvanizing Orator, Dies at 82Jonathan D. Salant and Freeman Klopott
Mario Cuomo, the three-term New York governor who oversaw the state’s economic renewal through the 1980s and was the longest-serving Democrat to hold the post, has died. He was 82.
He died yesterday at home in Manhattan from natural causes resulting from heart failure, his family said in a statement released by the office of his son, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was sworn in to his second term hours earlier in the day.
During his inaugural address, Andrew Cuomo said his father was too sick to attend and that he went through the speech with him the night before. He had those attending at One World Trade Center in Manhattan give a round of applause for his dad.
“He couldn’t be here physically today, my father,” Andrew Cuomo said. “But my father is in this room. He is in the heart and mind of every person who is here.”
A two-time failed candidate for public office before upsetting heavily favored New York City Mayor Edward Koch in the 1982 Democratic primary for governor, Cuomo used his gubernatorial bully pulpit to challenge U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who said that “the most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
Cuomo’s biggest pulpit was the podium at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, where he stood as the keynote speaker and delivered an address that garnered national acclaim and instantly transformed him into a potential presidential candidate.
He went after Reagan’s declaration that America was a “shining city on a hill” by declaring that “not everyone is sharing” in this largesse.
“In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it,” Cuomo said. “Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.”
He tried to contrast the two political parties, saying that Republicans believed “in a kind of social Darwinism,” in which it should take care of the rich and have their wealth trickle down to the middle-class and poor.
“The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail,” Cuomo told a cheering audience of delegates and party leaders. “We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact.”
Winning elections in 1982, 1986 and 1990, Cuomo oversaw a period of economic renewal and guided New York through two recessions and balanced 12 consecutive budgets, according to a biography on the website of New York-based law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, where Cuomo was of counsel. During his 12 years as governor, he invested billions of taxpayer dollars in infrastructure and high-tech research facilities, boosting growth in the private sector.
Cuomo listed enactment of a state ethics law, welfare programs and construction on roads and bridges among his top accomplishments in an interview after his re-election defeat, according to the New York Times. He also cited the absence of corruption in his government.
“For 12 years, I don’t remember anybody saying these people are dishonest, these people cut a deal, they’re corrupt, they’re ripping us off,” he said.
President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, paid tribute to Cuomo, as did former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Mario paired his faith in God and faith in America to live a life of public service -- and we are all better for it,” the president and first lady said in a joint statement.
“It was Mario Cuomo’s great gift and our good fortune that he was both a sterling orator and a passionate public servant,” the Clintons said in a separate statement. “His life was a blessing.”
Though considered the eloquent voice of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, Cuomo shunned that label, calling himself a “progressive pragmatist,” and trumpeting the tax cuts he championed during his first term in office. He also acknowledged that there was a limit to how much Americans would pay for public programs, declaring in his 1983 inaugural address that, “We should have only the government we need, but we have and must insist on all the government we need.”
Cuomo opposed the death penalty and went to Notre Dame University in 1984 to say that being a good Catholic did not require him to use his power as governor to carry out the church’s teachings on abortion, such as backing a total ban on abortion and stopping poor women from receiving government help to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
“To assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful,” Cuomo said. “We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us.”
He continued, “Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin?”
It was Cuomo’s eloquence that earned him a national following and made Democrats across the U.S. swoon at the possibility that he would seek the White House.
His 1984 convention keynote address placed him atop lists of potential Democratic presidential candidates in both 1988 and 1992. He declined to run both times, the second time as a plane waited on the Albany Airport tarmac to fly him to New Hampshire to enter the first-in-the-nation primary.
“Tonight, New York has lost a giant,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Mario Cuomo was a man of unwavering principle who possessed a compassion for humankind that was without equal.”
When Cuomo did return to the convention podium eight years after his keynote address, he was there to nominate Bill Clinton for the White House. Cuomo later turned down an offer from Clinton to nominate him to the U.S. Supreme Court, and left public office after losing his 1994 re-election bid to Republican state Senator George Pataki.
“Mario Cuomo inspired millions of people around the country with his vision for a more compassionate and just society,” Michael Bloomberg, former New York mayor and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, said in a statement. “But for all he accomplished, his proudest day in life well may have been his last, seeing his son, Andrew, inaugurated for a second term.”
Mario Matthew Cuomo was born on June 15, 1932, in Queens, New York, to Italian immigrants, Andrea Cuomo and the former Immaculata Giordano, according to Marquis Who’s Who. He was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates to a professional baseball contract, though never made it out of the minor leagues. He dropped the sport after being hit in the head with a baseball.
He graduated from St. John’s University in 1953 and its law school in 1956. After representing two neighborhood groups in zoning disputes, then-New York City Mayor John Lindsay asked him in 1972 to mediate a controversy over public housing in Forest Hills, Queens. Cuomo chronicled the dispute and his successful efforts to resolve it in “Forest Hills Diary,” the first of several books, including a children’s tome, that he would write.
Democratic Party leaders nominated Cuomo for lieutenant governor in 1974, though he lost the primary to state Senator Mary Anne Krupsak, who later became the first woman elected to statewide office in New York when the ticket headed by Hugh Carey defeated Republican Governor Malcolm Wilson. Once in office, Carey appointed Cuomo secretary of state.
In 1977, Cuomo sought to become New York City mayor. He lost twice to Koch, first in the Democratic primary and then, as the nominee of the state’s Liberal Party, in the general election.
The following year, after Krupsak challenged Carey in the Democratic primary, Carey replaced her on his ticket with Cuomo. The Carey-Cuomo ticket won in November.
When Carey declined to seek a third term in 1982, Koch entered the race with the prodding of Rupert Murdoch and the New York Post. The rest of the Democratic field cleared out with the exception of Cuomo. With virtually the entire party establishment lined up behind Koch, Cuomo asked son Andrew to run his campaign.
Koch gave an interview to Playboy magazine in which he described the state capital of Albany as “small town life at its worst,” called the suburbs “sterile,” and described rural New Yorkers as “wasting time in a pickup truck” or driving “20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit.” Cuomo won the primary, then defeated Republican Lewis Lehrman in the general election to become the state’s 52nd governor.
Four years later, still basking in the glow of his convention keynote address, Cuomo polled 65 percent of the vote against Westchester County Executive Andrew O’Rourke, then a record for the highest percentage for a New York gubernatorial nominee. Cuomo won a third term in 1990, defeating Republican Pierre Rinfret and Conservative Party nominee Herbert London.
His 1994 bid for a fourth term ended at the hands of Pataki, who was carried into office by the same nationwide Republican landslide that ended 40 years of Democratic majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Cuomo returned to practicing law and continued to speak out nationally on issues. In February 2011, he was chosen by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Burton Lifland to mediate a $1 billion legal fight between Irving Picard, the trustee liquidating the firm of Bernard Madoff, and the owners of the New York Mets, accused of benefiting from the con man’s Ponzi scheme.
Besides Andrew, Cuomo and his wife, Matilda, had a son Chris, who as of November 2014 co-hosted the CNN morning show “New Day,” and daughters Maria, Margaret and Madeline.