(c) 2015, The Washington Post. Mario Cuomo, the three-term governor of New York who defined and passionately defended liberalism in America in an era when that political philosophy was in decline, died Thursday at his home in New York. He was 82.
The New York governor’s office confirmed his death to The Associated Press. Cuomo had been hospitalized in recent weeks for a heart condition. Andrew Cuomo, his son, was sworn in for a second term as New York governor hours before his father’s death. Andrew Cuomo left the ceremony early to be with his father.
President Barack Obama, in a statement Thursday night, called Cuomo “a determined champion of progressive values, and an unflinching voice for tolerance, inclusiveness, fairness, dignity, and opportunity.”
Cuomo combined intellect, oratorical skill and a combative and complex personality to make his mark far beyond the state he served. His service as governor overlapped with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and he was among the most forceful critics of the Republican chief executive’s conservative, small-government philosophy as he defended and celebrated an expansive and compassionate view of the role of government.
Cuomo, one of the giants of the Democratic Party in the 1980s, twice flirted with running for president, in 1988 and 1992. He came the closest to running in 1992, going as far as to have chartered airplanes fueled and waiting to take him to New Hampshire in December 1991 to sign the necessary papers to run in that state’s primary. At the last minute he pulled back, saying his state’s fiscal problems demanded his attention and prevented him from running.
From his first day as governor, Cuomo gave voice to liberal ideals, declaring in his inaugural address in 1983, “This state has always led the way in demonstrating government’s best uses.” He called that approach “progressive pragmatism,” but it was in fact a desire to put government to work on behalf of those most in need.
Over time, others in his party turned to him for rhetorical heft and intellectual muscle in a struggle with conservatism that eventually would cost him his governorship. That came in 1994, as he sought a fourth term in Albany, only to be swept aside in the Republican landslide of that year by George Pataki.
His most memorable speech came at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, where he delivered the keynote address at the gathering that nominated Walter Mondale as the party’s candidate for president. There he directly challenged Reagan and the president’s often-used line describing America as a shining city on the hill. “Mr. President,” he said, “you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’ “
Cuomo’s compassion came in part from his deep Catholic faith and his childhood as the son of Italian immigrants. But as a lawyer, he was a skilled and sometimes belligerent debater, who gave no quarter and used his rhetorical skills to batter his opponents. He was forceful on the stage but given to indecision, most notably when he vacillated for weeks over whether to run for president, to the point of exasperation for others in his party.
When he finally met reporters in the state Capitol in Albany on that December afternoon, he said that, were it not for the state’s problems, “I would travel to New Hampshire today and file my name as a candidate in its presidential primary. That was my hope, and I prepared for it. . . . I would be less than honest if I did not admit to you my regret at not having the opportunity to run for president.”
That and other episodes in which he seemed unable to make up his mind helped earn him the nickname “Hamlet on the Hudson.”
He could be defiant in his expressions of his liberal philosophy. He was a staunch opponent of the death penalty and, in spite of his Roman Catholic faith, a defender of a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Another of his most remembered speeches came in September 1984, when he went to the University of Notre Dame to speak about religious belief and public morality. Though personally opposed to abortion, he warned against trying to impose the church’s views on others, saying the price of doing so “is that they might someday force theirs on us.”
Mario Matthew Cuomo was born June 15, 1932, in Queens, New York. His parents, Andrea Cuomo and the former Immaculata Giordano, moved to the United States from Salerno in southern Italy. His father ran a small grocery business in Queens.
As a young man, Cuomo loved baseball and was a minor league prospect. He graduated from St. John’s University in New York in 1953 and received a law degree there three years later.
He worked in private practice before entering public affairs. He served as New York secretary of state under Gov. Hugh Carey and later became lieutenant governor in 1978.
In 1993, he passed on an opportunity to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. The next year, Cuomo lost his seat to Pataki. Cuomo later returned to legal practice with the firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
Cuomo won the governorship in 1982 after first defeating popular New York Mayor Edward Koch in the Democratic primary. The victory over Koch avenged a loss to Koch in a nasty 1997 mayoral primary in which it was later said that Cuomo’s heart was not in the race.
The 1982 victory positioned him as a counterweight to the rightward shift in national politics. The Democrats, he offered, would do more than Republicans to erase the economic disparities seen in poorer parts of the country — including in Upstate New York.
Nationally, the message didn’t take. But in New York, Cuomo was enormously popular. A Marist poll in June of 1986 put his approval at 71 percent in the state; he won reelection that year by a wide margin. Four years later, approval at a still-strong 64 percent, he won election to his third term.
Cuomo’s liberal faith was never shaken. “We should have only the government we need,” he said as he began his governorship. “But we must have and we will insist on all the government that we need.” Government, he said, has an obligation “to assist those who for whatever inscrutable reason have been left out by fate.”
But as he moved from his first term to his second term, Reagan’s landslide victory over Mondale accelerated the conservative ascendance in American politics and shook rafters of the old Democratic Party. The Mondale defeat gave rise to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the emergence of politicians who defined and espoused a new philosophy for the party.
Among the leaders of that movement was then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and as the 1992 presidential race took shape, Clinton advisers assumed their most significant opponent would be the New York governor. Clinton’s team was preparing for a philosophical clash between the party’s most forceful advocate of liberalism and a Southern moderate who was seeking to turn the party in a new direction.
Cuomo’s decision not to run changed the course of the nomination battle. Asked that day whether he was pained at missing “a moment in history for yourself, for the country,” he said, “I will work toward that level of egoism. I haven’t arrived at it yet, though.”
Whatever Cuomo’s beliefs, he was left to deal with the fiscal realities of his time, which included a deep recession that greeted him as he first took office and another as he pondered a presidential run in the late fall of 1991. At the time of his decision not to run, he faced a gap of nearly $900 million in the current budget and a deficit of $3.6 billion in the next fiscal year.
Cuomo had a keen sense of humor and a bluntness to match. He sometimes invoked his mother to make his points, and at a coffee with Washington Post reporters in late 1983, the first-term governor used her to take a dig at Mondale, the former vice president and then-front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Columnist Mary McGrory recounted the exchange. “My mother thinks Mondale is polenta,” Cuomo said. McGrory noted the blank faces around the table. “You know polenta, it’s quite bland,” he added.
When Cuomo spoke at the 1992 Democratic convention, with the country just starting to emerge from a recession, he revisited his 1984 theme. “We tried to tell America that unless we changed policies, unless we expanded opportunity, the deterioration of the other city would spread,” he said at the convention that nominated Clinton in New York City. “We cannot afford to fail again.” It was a convention that many thought should have been nominating Cuomo, but he chose not to run, despite leading in the polls as late as December 1991.
Cuomo’s next election was in 1994, a year that saw a historic Republican wave nationally. He lost to Pataki by a three-percentage-point margin. Cuomo’s liberal theme of two cities needing to be united, however, has continued resonance among Democrats, particularly as the party has focused on the idea of income inequality. In 2013, Bill de Blasio made it the key theme of his successful mayoral campaign in New York City.
Besides his son Andrew, survivors include his wife of 60 years, the former Matilda Raffa; his son Chris, a television journalist; three daughters, Margaret, Maria and Madeline; and several grandchildren.