Ever-eloquent Mario Cuomo, a son of Queens who rode his rhetorical gifts to three terms as New York governor and tantalized Democrats by flirting with a run for President, died Thursday. He was 82.
Cuomo passed away at 5:15 p.m. of heart failure, surrounded by family in his Manhattan apartment as his son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was in Buffalo delivering his second inaugural address of the day.
Mario Cuomo was too ill to attend his son’s first inaugural speech Thursday, delivered in Lower Manhattan just after noon.
“He couldn’t be here physically today … but my father is in this room,” Andrew Cuomo said.
“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.”
As governor, Mario Cuomo wrestled with two recessions and presided over a massive expansion of the state prison system. An unwavering liberal, he bucked the political winds by wielding his veto pen year after year to block the restoration of the state death penalty.
It was his oratory, however, that made Mario Cuomo a national figure.
In 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.”
Facing a packed arena in San Francisco, and a national television audience, Cuomo said, “This nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities.’”
Two months later, Cuomo delivered a second spellbinder, an address at Notre Dame University in Indiana on abortion, religion and politics.
The two addresses, which would be ranked among the top speeches of the 20th century, vaulted Cuomo into the ranks of potential presidential contenders.
Cuomo toyed with the idea of a White House run, first in 1988 and then in 1992, solidifying his nickname, Hamlet on the Hudson. He decided not to enter the ’92 race at the last minute — and a plane that was to whisk the necessary paperwork to New Hampshire in December 1991 was left idling on an Albany runway.
Eighteen months later, Cuomo turned down another legacy-making opportunity when he asked President Bill Clinton to take him off the short list of potential replacements for Supreme Court Justice Byron White.
Another New Yorker, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was nominated instead.
“He was probably during his time the most eloquent public official in the nation. … He certainly carried the torch for progressive ideas,” said 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.”
Mario Matthew Cuomo was born June 15, 1932, in Queens, the third and final child of immigrants from a small village near Naples, Italy. His parents, Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo, owned a grocery store in South Jamaica during the Depression.
Cuomo became a product of the borough’s Catholic schools and a strong athlete: He excelled in baseball and basketball.
A center fielder, Cuomo signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization when he was 19. He was hitting .244 with one homer in 81 games in the Georgia-Florida League when he was beaned by a fastball. He was blinded for a week and never played professionally again.
He went home and attended St. John’s University and then its law school, where he tied for first in his graduating class. In 1952 he married St. John’s student Matilda Raffa, a union that lasted 62 years until his death.
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.
His early legal career included representing a pair of defendants sentenced to the electric chair — an experience that shaped his unbending opposition to the death penalty.
Cuomo gained notice in the late 1960s when he successfully represented 69 families fighting an urban renewal plan to condemn their homes in Corona, Queens, to make way for a school.
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 low-income housing on 108th St. near the Long Island Expressway.
At 42, a relatively late start for a politician, Cuomo made his first run for office, losing the 1974 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. He entered government the following year when Gov. Hugh Carey named him secretary of state.
In 1977, at Carey’s behest, Cuomo joined the crowded and chaotic Democratic field challenging incumbent Mayor Abe Beame. Ed Koch emerged from the primary as the Democratic nominee — only to find Cuomo running on the Liberal Party line in the November election. But Koch won the general election, too.
An incident in that race created an enduring rift between Cuomo and Koch: Signs mysteriously were posted in Queens that read, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Mario and Andrew Cuomo, who worked on his father’s campaign, always denied any role, but Koch held a grudge for decades.
“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.
“I also held it against his son, Andy Cuomo … Social relationships, when we meet, are good. Underneath — he knows, I know, what I’m really thinking: ‘You p—k.’”
Cuomo was elected lieutenant governor in 1978 as Carey’s running mate. In 1982 he got some revenge against Koch, beating him in the Democratic primary for governor, and then winning the general election to become New York’s 52nd governor.
Cuomo was reelected in 1986 and 1990 by towering margins, with his son Andrew emerging as his most trusted adviser.
The Cuomo inner circle also included Tim Russert, who later went on to fame as a political reporter and host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Cuomo’s speech at the 1984 convention reduced some in the crowd 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’s another part of the city, the part where people can’t pay their mortgages … and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”
Cuomo’s New York support surged after the speech: A survey showed 21.9% of his constituents rated his performance as excellent in September 1984, up from 8.3% in June.
Then, in his Notre Dame address, Cuomo discussed the issue of abortion and condemned the concept of religion for political promotion as “frightening.”
“The American people need no course in philosophy or political science of church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman,” he declared.
The devout Catholic wound up feuding with a future cardinal, John O’Connor, that same year over his support of abortion.
A “draft Cuomo” for President movement picked up steam during Reagan’s second term. But Cuomo ended the speculation by pulling his name out of the presidential race in February 1987. The clamor for Cuomo soon began again, leading to the famous Albany runway incident.
The jet returned to its hangar, and Cuomo later acknowledged his White House aspirations ended for good when Clinton was elected President in 1992.
As governor, Cuomo was tested days after taking office, by an inmate uprising at Sing Sing prison in Westchester County in which 17 guards were held hostage.
Cuomo helped negotiate an end to the standoff with none of the hostages suffering serious injury.
During his three terms, Cuomo steered the state through two separate recessions. In 1991, he raised badly needed revenue with a fiscal gimmick still referenced today — the state sold Attica prison to itself for $200 million in borrowed money that was used to help close a budget shortfall.
Cuomo also successfully pushed for a transportation bond act in 1988 that allowed the state to borrow billions of dollars for needed road and bridge projects, and he presided over the largest prison boom in state history — something he later said he regretted.
After a dozen years in Albany, Mario mania morphed into Cuomo fatigue.
With “Anyone but Cuomo” sentiment running strong, especially upstate, Cuomo’s bid for a fourth term failed. He was defeated by a little-known Republican state senator, George Pataki, in 1994.
His relationship with Clinton became strained after it was revealed that Clinton was recorded suggesting that Cuomo “acted like” a Mafiosi and was a “mean son of a bitch.”
Cuomo initially refused to accept Clinton’s apology before the pair mended fences. After his 1996 reelection, Clinton helped to propel Andrew’s political career, naming him as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The former governor eventually became an adviser to a subsequent governor: Andrew, who was elected in November 2010 and reelected Nov. 4.
“Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo,” President Obama said. “An Italian Catholic kid from Queens, born to immigrant parents, Mario paired his faith in God and faith in America to live a life of public service — and we are all better for it.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement, saying, “We are terribly saddened by the passing of our friend Mario Cuomo. Mario’s life was the very embodiment of the American dream. When he placed my name in nomination at the 1992 Democratic Convention, he said government had “the solemn obligation to create opportunity for all our people.” In his three terms as Governor of New York, he honored that obligation.”
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Cuomo “represented the very best of public service.”
“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,” Schumer said.
On Twitter, Pataki called Cuomo “a proud son of immigrants” and a “great New Yorker” who was “possessed of a soaring intellect.”
Mario Cuomo wrote two books after leaving office, an inspirational kids’ book, “The Blue Spruce,” and an appreciation of the 16th President, “Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever.”
His most famous speeches were collected for a book titled “More Than Words.”
And the veteran of the political wars was summoned to mediate one final Queens dispute: the 2011 battle between the Wilpon family, owner of the Mets, and investment guru- turned-felon Bernard Madoff.
In addition to his wife and his son the governor, Mario Cuomo is survived by four other children: CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, Madeline Cuomo, Dr. Margaret Cuomo and Maria Cuomo Cole; and 14 grandchildren.
Source: NY Daily News