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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 702

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This is the grave of Mario Cuomo.

Born in 1932 in Queens, Cuomo grew up there. His father was an Italian immigrant who cleaned sewers in New Jersey. Not exactly glamorous. He then opened an all-night grocery store in South Jamaica. Cuomo went to St. John’s for college where he played baseball. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as an outfielder. He played a year in the Class D Florida-Georgia League but got beaned in the head with a ball and spent a week in the hospital. He wasn’t major league material in any case, as he was a pretty light hitter. So he went back to St. John’s and finished his degree, graduating in 1953. He stayed there to go to law school, graduating at the top of his class in 1956. But he had trouble getting a job at a firm where he could use his talents. That’s largely because he was Italian. He finally got a job at a firm in Brooklyn where, among others, he represented a lovely man named Fred Trump. But hey, it’s the law. One of his first big cases was taking on Robert Moses. The big developer wanted to raze a bunch of junkyards to expand the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. It was not easy to defeat Moses, but Cuomo did.

Cuomo started rising in city politics in the late 60s when he led a group of homeowners angry about being displaced to build a school in Queens. He became a key figure in mediating a rapidly changing Queens, with large numbers of Black Americans moving in and the fears that caused for Italians and Jews who did not want those people moving in. John Lindsay tasked Cuomo with a tricky assignment in 1972, when the Housing Authority wanted to build a huge housing complex that freaked out local residents. Cuomo was able to work toward a smaller development that reserved 40 percent of it for the elderly, many of which included the locals as they aged.

A rising star in the New York Democratic Party, he ran for lieutenant governor in 1974, but his ticket lost the primary. However, new governor Hugh Carey asked Cuomo to be Secretary of State and he agreed. This is not a major job in the New York government, but he did work out an agreement on a rent strike in Co-Op City and a land dispute between the state and the Mohawk tribe. In 1977, Cuomo nearly became mayor of New York, losing to Ed Koch after a closely contested top-two primary that also included Bella Abzug. Carey personally urged him to run and supported his candidacy. Cuomo unfortunately ran a homophobic campaign against Koch, or at least his aides did. Signs appeared that read, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Koch never forgave him, although both Mario and his son Andrew, already a close advisor, denied it. That probably really didn’t hurt Cuomo with New York voters but his opposition to the death penalty in a political moment where the crime wave was leading to greater support for this horrible punishment.

But this defeat did not hurt Cuomo’s bigger career and in 1978, he ran and won election as lieutenant governor. In 1982, Cuomo and Koch ran off again, this time for governor. Koch’s open contempt for upstate New York (he gave an interview in Playboy where he talked about awful it would be to live in the hick town of Albany) cost him in the primary and Cuomo moved on, winning a pretty narrow victory over Lewis Lehrman in the general. He would remain governor until 1995. As governor, he was an open liberal in a time of liberalism’s decline. He openly took on the austerity of the Reagan administration and the growing DLC influence in the Democratic Party. Among his signature policy victories as governor was closing the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island and signing new ethics legislation to try and control the ridiculous levels of corruption that define so much of New York politics. Nearly every year as governor, he vetoed the death penalty bill the legislature would puke up, citing his Catholic values as part of the reason. He also refused to turn his back on his pro-choice views, defying the Catholic Church hierarchy by stating publicly that a Catholic might personally oppose abortion while wanting to keep it legal and safe. He also had to deal with a prisoners strike at Sing Sing almost as soon as his first term started; over 50 guards were taken hostage but the situation was resolved without violence, which just over a decade after Attica was not a guaranteed outcome.

On two occasions, both in 1988 and 1992, Cuomo was thought of as a major competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he never pulled the trigger on a run for it. He gave the keynote address at the 1984 DNC where he outshone Walter Mondale and this made him a national hero for many Democrats, but in the end he never really wanted to leave New York. In 1991, he was literally on the tarmac to get on a flight to New Hampshire to file the application fee before the deadline and in the end, just stayed on the ground. He stated, “It seems to me I cannot turn my attention to New Hampshire while this threat hangs over the head of the New Yorkers that I’ve sworn to put first.”

When Bill Clinton had his first Supreme Court opening in 1993, Cuomo fought hard to be considered for it and perhaps would have gotten the nod, but then stepped back at the last minute and withdrew, instead preparing to run for a fourth term as governor. However, by this time, Cuomo was a bit out of touch with the New York public, ruling from Albany and not doing the county fair and handshaking bit that people wanted in their politics. He might well have survived this, but it was 1994 and nearly every Democrat was vulnerable in that horrible year. Cuomo losing was perhaps the biggest shocker of the night, when that schmuck George Pataki defeated him.

In the aftermath of his defeat, Cuomo remained a major player in the New York and national Democratic Party, serving as a senior member of a prominent law firm and just generally being a power broker. He received a measure of revenge when his son Andrew, his lesser in terms of policy and moral vision about what government can do in society if not in political ambition, won the New York governorship in 2010 and then again in 2014. He died in 2015, at the age of 82.

Mario Cuomo is buried in Saint John Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other major Democrats of the 1980s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Paul Simon is in Makanda, Illinois and Paul Tsongas is in Lowell, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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