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by Hank Boerner
On New Year’s Day, former New York State (three-term) Governor Mario M. Cuomo passed away. We were sorry to hear that news and offer our condolences to his family — as we offer this brief remembrance of this fascinating public servant. Like the governor, I was a product of Queens County, New York and in fact, the bustling merchant village of Jamaica. We grew up just a few blocks from each other.
When I sent him notes later in our lives I would sign off, “that other kid from Queens.” It was a favorite line of mine to personalize the note and he told me that it brought a smile when he saw the quip.
He was a man of modest means; born to an immigrant couple from Southern Italy, he grew up in a grocery store where he watched his mother and father struggle keep their neighborhood store going and to pay bills. (Governor Cuomo was born in 1932 at the outset of the Great Depression. He worked in the store from a very early age.)
Mario Cuomo was very bright and demonstrated confidence, full of energy to go along with the quick intellect. Early on the local parish priests apparently noticed his abilities and got him into the much -respected St Johns Prep School in Brooklyn. From there he would progress to St. John’s University in Jamaica, and on to St. John’s Law School (class of 1956), and into the law profession. He taught Constitutional Law at St John’s for many years; this his beloved alma mater, which gave him the intellectual foundation and grounding in Roman Catholicism that would serve him the rest of his life. (St. John’s is the home of the famous Red Storm sports teams.)
Some of my friends who were his law students remember their Professor Cuomo with great admiration; he would often take members of his class to the local pizzeria for continued discussion — with much passion, they said — about matters of law. He cultivated a great respect for the Rule of Law, and for public service, in the young students in his care.
Early in my career I worked in state government, in the administration of four-term N.Y. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller (a moderate, Eastern-liberal Republican who probably would be very out of place in today’s national party, but not necessarily in his home state). Nelson Rockefeller thought and acted “big” — he created a modern public transportation system, a state university system, and thousands of affordable housing units for middle and lower economic strata. He actively campaigned for the presidency, and while not reaching the top rung, would be President Gerald Ford’s vice president.
Mario Cuomo, succeeding in the governorship less than a decade later, would not be able to build “big” systems and outstanding legacy items for future generations to admire. When he assumed office, the bills had come due for lots of past projects — gleefully bonded for putting shovels in the ground and generously rewarding unions on the job. Governor Cuomo would struggle with the state budget awash in red ink.
I first engaged with Mr.Cuomo when he was battling to save the homes of the “Corona 69,” mostly Italian-American families who in the early 1970s were about to lose their homes to a massive development project that would force them to move. (You may be familiar with parts of the Corona area; it’s home to Citi Field, and the New York Mets; LaGuardia Airport is on the northern border; the 1964-65 World’s Fair was staged in the neighborhood.)
In the early 1960s, as the World’s Fair plans were being drawn up, an industrial complex adjacent to what is now the ball field was home to numerous auto salvage businesses. The businesses hired Professor Cuomo to battle powerful forces — think, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who always got what he wanted. Lawyer Cuomo won the day; the businesses were saved; the fair grounds did not include that piece of Corona, Queens County (part of Greater New York City).
When the residents of Forest Hills, Queens (a planned community of the early 1900s, and home to American tennis tournaments for many years) felt threatened several years later as a low-income housing project was planned, New York City Mayor John Lindsay (another moderate Republican) appointed Professor Cuomo to negotiate and reach a settlement approved by all interests. He did that — and wrote a book (in 1974) about those hectic days and evenings (“Forest Hills Diary – The Crisis of Low Income Housing”).
While shunned by most prestigious brand name law firms — he attributed that to his Italian-American background and decidedly “ethnic” and “street smart” personality — Mario Cuomo definitely was noticed by the political powers. Governor Hugh Carey appointed Mario Cuomo to be Secretary of State — a post that had oversight of the real estate profession. And at the time, there was blatant “red lining” going on in New York — including America’s Melting Pot City — with people of color being discriminated against in many ways (by banks, mortgage lenders, real estate brokers and sales staff). I was newly in the issue management consultant business and a local board of Realtors engaged me to work with Secretary of State Cuomo and his staff to help settle disputes.
Mr. Cuomo was tough and demanding and fiercely focused on the rights of minority buyers and renters and drove a hard bargain; in the end, he got most of what he wanted and the tearing apart of neighborhoods where white and black and brown populations were neighboring slowed considerably. (Rogue brokers would target white neighborhoods and raised fear to drive anxious buyers to list for sale.)
Governor Carey invited Secretary Cuomo to be his running mate as Lt. Governor. Bit by the political bug and eager to serve in public office, Mr. Cuomo would run for post of Mayor of New York and the governorship; he won his first term as governor of the Empire State in 1982 and took office in January 1983. He would serve until December 31, 1994.
Working on various client engagements I would meet with the governor on this and that issue, and in 1984 when the New York State Wine Grape Foundation was created (I had worked on the legislative concept), the governor appointed me to the board of directors, where I would serve as board member, corporate secretary, and head of marketing committee. I am grateful to him for giving me the privilege of serving my state as we began the concerned effort — continuing today — to boost the fortunes of New York’s fabulous wine makers in the four regions where grapes are grown.
I was also privileged to assist with several projects on a pro bono basis. As the governor was considering a run for the presidency (which considered twice), he decided in summer 1987 to travel abroad (he had not done so previously — he was a “New York” home state and city kind of guy). His destination: the USSR / Moscow…to polish his foreign affairs credentials…just in case.
As he planned the landmark trip abroad I prepared for him suggestions for connecting with Soviet leadership and the ordinary Russians. No surprise — as he got around Moscow, he was on the steps of churches challenging the “God-less) USSR leaders to grant more religious freedom to the Russian People! (That was not in my list of suggestions.)
You’ll see many references in his obituaries to his on again/off again “run” for the presidency. He flirted with the possibility but in the end decided to stay in New York, in the service of the People as governor. He was a complex man and there probably were many reasons why he decided against campaigning for the highest post in the land.
Governor Cuomo was elected to three terms in office and was defeated in his fourth try. He was prominent as a Liberal (big and little “l”) and progressive, and admired by many in America in both parties for his soaring oratory. Remember his inspiring keynote rhetoric at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco? (If you have not heard this, there are copies on line — it is well worth watching….what he had to say about inequality and other social issues is very relevant today.)
In 1992, the Democratic Party brought its presidential convention to Governor Cuomo’s beloved city. I got a call from the staff to come to the Silvercup movie studios in Long Island City (across the river from Manhattan in Queens County) where the governor was hosting delegates the evening before the opening of the convention. The governor was in his glory, moving around, greeting everyone, making them feel at home in New York (of course a “foreign” city to many who came from other states). Then, in an astonishing performance, the governor mounted the podium for a “few welcoming remarks…” Wow!
You see, the governor was going to preview his nominating speech (for William Jefferson Clinton, his fellow Democrat governor of Arkansas). Without notes, he ran through the points to be made to rally the small crowd that evening. I heard one Midwestern delegate turn to his companion and say, “why the hell aren’t we nominating this guy!” Perhaps that was the point. The governor was a magnificent speaker and speech maker. But he often remarked about how difficult it was to convert the “poetry of campaigning” into the “prose of governing.” He gave it a good try during his career in public service.
The governor did not fade away in his post-governorship; he wrote books, lectured, and took great pleasure in seeing his son, Andrew, first become Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs (and a champion of affordable housing and fair lending) and then governor of his and his father’s beloved New York State.
As Governor Andrew Cuomo was inaugurated for his second term, the first Governor Cuomo passed away in the presence of his loving family at home in New York City.
His was a remarkable life. He inspired many of the people that he touched over four plus-decades in public service; he was a champion for the downtrodden and the poor, a leader who fulminated against rising inequality — and spoke out with eloquence on behalf of those who could not. As I said up top, he was a complex man and during his time in office things in New York State and America were, well, complicated. While he had many admirers, he also had his share of detractors. You will see and hear comments on the plus and minus side of Mario Cuomo.
As for me — I will remember the man with great admiration and fondness, and feel great sadness at his passing. And I’ll be sure to “touch base” with the ideas that he advanced 40, 30, 20 and even 10 years ago. It’s amazing how prescient he was to anticipate the earnest debate on important societal topics and issues going on today!
“Excelsior!” — that’s the official motto of New York State and the line with which the governor signed his notes and inscribed his books. It means “higher or lofty” as in aspirations, from the Latin root, excelsus. Law professor Mario Cuomo knew its meaning, and the power of the word, and embraced it as his personal motto. It fitted him well. It serves to sum up his life and contributions to The People that he served.
Governor Mario Cuomo was a unique man and leader — and we — and I — shall miss him.
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Governor Mario Cuomo’s speech – nominating Bill Clinton. http://www.shabbir.com/nonmatchbox/cuomo.html
Governor Cuomo’s 1984 “Two Cities” speech at the San Francisco convention: http://news.yahoo.com/the-legacy-of-mario-cuomo-s-1984-%E2%80%9Ctale-of-two-cities%E2%80%9D-speech-150348324.html