Mario Cuomo, a Frustrating Hero to Democrats, Is Dead at 82

The New York governor was the foremost Democrat to stand athwart the Reagan Revolution.

He won re-election twice as governor of New York, and had the hubris to run for a fourth term before being defeated in 1994. He was a leading presidential contender in 1988 and 1992, but never formally entered the race.

Mario Cuomo broke a lot of hearts in the Democratic Party with his decision to forego a presidential run, but he leaves a legacy of progressive governance in New York and throughout the country for the way he stuck to his principles and stood up to the Reagan Revolution when others in his party ran for cover.

Cuomo died Thursday at age 82, after a lengthy hospital stay for a heart ailment, and those who mourn him invariably point to his “City on a Hill” speech at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco in 1984. It was a transformative moment for a demoralized party when Cuomo directly challenged Reagan’s “shining city,” saying, “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.”

For Democrats yet to regain their bearings after Reagan’s landslide win in 1980, Cuomo rose like a phoenix at the convention with his forceful exposition of government’s positive role in people’s lives. “He defined what it is for Democrats to have their mojo again,” says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “He reminded people my age how it felt to belong to a party that was dynamic and had principles and had ideas at a time when Reagan was stomping all over those things with his message that government is the problem.”

Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The fires of longing that he ignited with his powerful convention speech did not lead for whatever reason to his candidacy as president, but instead produced one of the most dramatic moments in American politics. Joe Grandmaison, then chairman of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, recalls waiting at the statehouse in Concord for word of when Cuomo’s plane would be leaving from Albany. It was Dec. 20, 1991, the deadline for the New Hampshire primary.

Grandmaison had agreed to support the governor, lining up a campaign office and assembling some 20 people he knew would be influential to greet him. A declaration of candidacy signed by Cuomo was in the trunk of his car. While it isn’t necessary for the candidate to personally deliver the papers, it is the tradition. “The argument is you’re showing less interest in the electorate if you don’t do it yourself,” he explains.

Repeated calls to Albany yielded nothing definitive until someone called Matilda Cuomo to tell her that her husband would be flying to New Hampshire, and would be late picking her up in New Rochelle, where one of their daughters lived. “Call me when the plane leaves the ground,” she said, in a tone that implied she knew her husband well.

The passage of time has not diminished Grandmaison’s astonishment at the events of that day, but he has little patience for those who profess bewilderment at why Cuomo declined to contend for the presidency. “He just didn’t have his heart in it,” he says. “They came up with this excuse about the budget [and having to stay in Albany to resolve an impasse], but something down deep in you has to put you on that path if you’re totally serious about it.”

As someone who never ran for president, who pondered it and for whatever reason backed away, Cuomo became known as Hamlet on the Hudson. But he should not be judged by his wavering as a presidential candidate. Cuomo was a lunch-bucket Democrat, his policies rooted in his working-class upbringing and what he called “progressive pragmatism.”

He balanced the budget every one of his 12 years in office, and is credited with stopping the Reagan administration from ending the deductibility of state, local, and property taxes on federal tax returns. He launched the “Decade of the Child” to steer public funds into education and health care, and “Rebuild NY” with bonds for infrastructure. He was an active and important governor, taking the lead in confronting the AIDS epidemic, and making New York the first state to have seat-belt laws.

He rebuffed calls to institute the death penalty, and his last term as governor ended in his defeat. His successor, Republican George Pataki, immediately enacted a death-penalty law, repudiating Cuomo’s longstanding opposition to capital punishment.

While holding his core principles, Cuomo could find Jesuitical ways to adjust them to his Catholic beliefs and the requirements as he saw them for elective office. In a speech at Notre Dame in 1984, he said, “What is ideally desirable isn’t always feasible… there can be different political approaches to abortion besides unyielding adherence to an absolute prohibition.” The church was not happy with his views, and there was talk of excommunication.

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Cuomo never faltered in his adherence to the church, or to his political beliefs, which were rooted in his old-world upbringing and the values of hard work and family. He was born in an apartment above the grocery store owned by his immigrant parents in South Jamaica, Queens. “And that they were able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children go from behind their little grocery store in South Jamaica on the other side of the tracks where he was born, to occupy the highest seat in the greatest state of the greatest nation in the only world we know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process,” Cuomo said in the 1984 speech that made him famous.

Ineffably? Yes, ineffably. Mario Cuomo knew where he came from, and he never spoke down to the American people.