Ever-eloquent Mario Cuomo, who rode his rhetorical gifts to three terms as New York Governor and tantalized Democrats by flirting with a run for president, died Thursday, according to two sources close to the family. He was 82.
Cuomo passed away six hours after his oldest son, Governor Andrew Cuomo, was formally sworn-in to a second term in Manhattan. The elder Cuomo was too ill with a serious heart condition to attend.
“He couldn’t be here physically today, but my father is in this room,” Andrew Cuomo said in his inaugural address.
“He’s in the heart and mind of every person who is here. His inspiration and his legacy and his spirit is what has brought this day to this point.”
When Mario Cuomo was hospitalized in late 2014 with a heart condition, a spokesman said he was “in good spirits,” and CNN’s Chris Cuomo, the former governor’s other son, tweeted that his father was “doing well enough.” (In addition to Andrew and Chris, Mario Cuomo had three daughters — Maria, Margaret and Madeline.)
First elected to the post in 1982, Cuomo served three terms as governor of the Empire State, making him the longest-serving Democratic governor in state history.
Mario Matthew Cuomo was born in June 15, 1932 in Queens, New York. He was the youngest of three children. Both of his parents were of Italian descent. His father, Andrea, was born in Brooklyn, but his family returned to Nocera Superiore, Italy, shortly after his birth. Cuomo’s mother, Immaculata, grew up in nearby Tramonti, Italy. The couple married in 1925 and moved to the United States soon after. The Cuomos owned a family grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens, during the Great Depression.
Cuomo described his early life at the store in a 2013 New York Magazine feature.
“My parents were allowed to live behind the grocery store. There was an upstairs, which they weren’t allowed to use at first. But the back of the grocery store had a toilet and a big black stone tub that was large enough to clean clothes in, or for my mother to take me by the back of the head, pin me between her two legs, put my head into the tub, and scrub my hair. Later, as my bald spot grew, I said, ‘Ma, that was you. You did that to me.'”
Bright and studious, Cuomo attended St. John’s Prep for high school and later matriculated at St. John’s University, where he studied English, philosophy, and law in addition to playing baseball. In 1952, he managed to catch the eye of a Pittsburgh Pirates scout, who signed Cuomo to a contract with the team, including a $2,000 signing bonus. Cuomo played center field that summer for the Pirates’ Class D farm team in Brunswick, Georgia, batting.244 in 81 games. His pro-ball career was cut short when he was hit in the head by a pitched ball, sending him to the hospital with a blood clot on his brain. He was blinded for a week and never played professionally again.
“The residual effects of that hematoma drove me into politics,” Cuomo told Jay Leno in 1993.
He attended St. John’s University and graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1953. He continued his education by attending its law school, where he tied for first in his graduating class. In 1952, he married another St. John’s student, Matilda Raffa, a union that would last 62 years until his death. Cuomo used his Pirates signing bonus to buy the engagement ring. The couple remained in New York as Cuomo served as a law clerk for Judge Adrian P. Burke of the New York State Court of Appeals. The couple welcomed their first child, Margaret, in 1956.
Cuomo ignored the advice of a law school dean to adopt a less-ethnic last name in the interest of landing a better job. The vowel at the end of his surname stayed and Cuomo thrived.
Cuomo entered private practice as an attorney with the Brooklyn-based firm Weisbrod, Froeb & Charles, where he quickly gained a reputation as a skilled litigator. As the Atlantic detailed in a 1990 profile, it was at this firm that Cuomo first got a taste for politics. In one high-profile fight, Cuomo stopped famed urban planner Robert Moses from redeveloping a Queens junkyard.
“Fighting politicians, he learned that government had a lot of power,” Fabian Palomino, Cuomo’s friend from their days at the appeals court, told the Atlantic. “It could do a little bit of good.”
His big break came in 1972, when Mayor John Lindsay asked him to mediate a bitter dispute in Forest Hills, Queens, where middle-class residents opposed the building of three 24-story towers for low-income tenants on 108th St., near the Long Island Expressway.
In 1974, at age of 42, a relatively late start for a politician, Cuomo took his political ambitions to the next level. He decided to run for the Democratic nomination for New York lieutenant governor at the coaxing of party bosses who thought the Italian-American would help shore up the so-called “white ethnic” vote. He fell short of that goal, losing to Polish-American State Senator Mary Anne Krupsak. However, Cuomo’s longtime acquaintance and fellow St. John’s alumnus, Governor Hugh Carey, had taken notice of ambition and the next year, Carey appointed Cuomo as New York’s Secretary of State, thus beginning the lawyer’s long career in Albany.
In 1977, at Carey’s behest, Cuomo joined the crowded and chaotic Democratic field challenging incumbent Mayor Abe Beame. The contentious Democratic primary pitted Cuomo against then-Representative Ed Koch, who went on to win the race. In one of the campaign’s ugliest moments, posters appeared around the city urging New Yorkers to “vote for Cuomo, not the homo” — alluding to rumors about Koch’s sexuality. Cuomo denied all responsibility for the homophobic signs, but in a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Koch said he “always held it against him,” even decades later.
“That matter has affected our relationship from ’77 through this year,” Koch told the New York Times in a 2007 interview that was released upon his death in 2013.
“We had to pay for something we never did,” Cuomo said after the former mayor’s death in 2013. “Why? Because Ed did insist on blaming us for years. He knew — because he was very intelligent — that I wasn’t dumb enough to do something that stupid even if I was mad enough, which I wasn’t. I always thought of that as an Ed Koch thing.”
Cuomo was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1978 as Carey’s running mate. In 1982, in what the New York Times described as a “stunning upset,” Cuomo defeated Koch for the Democratic nomination and went on to beat Republican businessman Lewis Lehrman, winning the general election to become the state’s 52nd governor.
Cuomo was reelected in 1986 and 1990 by towering margins, with his son Andrew emerging as his most trusted adviser.
Cuomo took a turn on the national political stage during the 1984 presidential campaign, during which he campaigned for Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. Cuomo was floated as a potential vice presidential pick, but Mondale ultimately settled on Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to appear on a major party ticket.
On July 1984, he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, a barnburner that amounted to a rebuttal of President Ronald Reagan’s stirring vision of America as a “shining city on a hill.” His speech is ranked as one of the great political addresses of the 20th century. Some in the crowd were reduced to tears.
Cuomo, who received two curtain calls, passionately illustrated the distinction between the haves and the have-nots in his “Two Cities” address.
“A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well,” Cuomo said. “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. Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.”
Two months later, Cuomo delivered a second spellbinder, an address at Notre Dame University in Indiana on abortion, religion, and politics.
The two addresses instantly made him a Democratic sensation, stirring speculation that he would run for president himself in 1988. But Cuomo eventually declined to jump in the race, instead running for re-election as governor in 1986 — a race he won by a landslide. He successfully ran for a third term in 1990, again sitting out of the presidential race in 1992 after flirting with the idea for some time. Cuomo’s vacillations on whether or not to run for president earned him the nickname “Hamlet on the Hudson.” He decided not to enter the ’92 campaign at the last minute, and a plane that was to whisk the necessary paperwork to New Hampshire was left idling on an Albany runway.
“He was probably during his time the most eloquent public official in the nation. He certainly carried the torch for progressive ideas,” said veteran political consultant George Arzt. “The plane on the tarmac has always been a symbol for many Democrats. People really expected him to take that flight and to run.”
In 1993, Cuomo was offered a chance at an open Supreme Court seat by President Bill Clinton, but removed himself from consideration. He later said he had no regrets about his decision.
”To be a justice of the Supreme Court, to sit there and listen, to study, to conclude and write and not have to worry about the polls, nothing would have been more perfect,” he said. ”But on the other side, I think I have probably been in a better position to speak out on the issues.”
As governor, Cuomo wrestled with two recessions and presided over a massive expansion of the state prison system. A liberal, he bucked the political winds by wielding his veto pen year after year to block the restoration of the state death penalty. At times he tacked to the right fiscally, proposing tax cuts and cutting spending in efforts to balance the state budget. He also fought against many of Reagan’s proposed budget cuts, and pushed for funding for housing, schools, and environmental protection.
Cuomo rejected political labels, which he saw as useless, and described himself as a “progressive pragmatist.”
”The very success of Mario Cuomo is that he is neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘conservative,'” Cuomo adviser Meyer S. Frucher told the New York Times in 1988. ”He does not fit any of the labels. That does not make him disingenuous. That makes him a good governor, the leader of a government that spends on social programs but does not get carried away, that has not just a heart, but a head.”
One of Cuomo’s most liberal positions — his opposition to the death penalty — became a central issue in his 1994 re-election campaign. For the first time since 1982, Cuomo found himself facing a formidable opponent in the race for the governorship. Republican State Senator George Pataki, initially considered an underdog with little statewide name recognition, steadily closed in on Cuomo as the campaign wore on. Pataki focused his campaign on two key issues: tax cuts and restoring the death penalty. The latter may have been critical to Pataki’s ultimate, albeit narrow, victory over Cuomo. As the New York Times reported after the election, 60 percent of voters said they supported restoring capital punishment. Those voters went 2 to 1 in favor of Pataki.
After his defeat, Cuomo returned to private practice, this time at Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, a New York City-based firm. He continued to give speeches on public affairs, and returned to the political world when his eldest son, Andrew, ran for governor, and began to fan the flames of his son’s presidential aspirations before he even took office.
Mario Cuomo was a man of integrity; the grocer’s son who rose to serve three terms as the Democratic Governor of the State of New York, and became renowned as a leading orator for the progressive ideals of an American melting pot. He epitomized the American Dream. Condolence statements have been issued from around the country.
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer said, “From the hard streets of Queens, Mario Cuomo rose to the very pinnacle of political power in New York because he believed in his bones in the greatness of this state, the greatness of America and the unique potential of every individual. He was a colossal political mind and represented the very best of public service.”
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