Mario Cuomo, 82; N.Y. governor and Democrats’ liberal voice

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo in 2011.
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo in 2011.AP/File/2011

NEW YORK — Mario M. Cuomo, the three-term governor of New York who commanded the attention of the country with a compelling public presence, a forceful defense of liberalism, and his exhaustive ruminations about whether to run for president, died at his home in Manhattan on Thursday. He was 82.

The cause was heart failure, according to a statement released by the governor’s office.

Mr. Cuomo, the father of Andrew M. Cuomo, who hours earlier on Thursday was inaugurated for a second term as governor, led New York during a turbulent time, 1983 through 1994.

His ambitions for an activist government were thwarted by economic recession. He found himself struggling with the state Legislature not over what the government should do but over what programs should be cut, and what taxes should be raised, simply to balance the budget.


Still, no matter the problems he found in Albany, Mr. Cuomo burst beyond the state’s boundaries to personify the liberal wing of his national party and become a source of unending fascination and, ultimately, frustration for Democrats, whose leaders twice pressed him to run for president, in 1988 and 1992, to no avail.

In an era when liberal thought was increasingly discredited, Mr. Cuomo, a man of large intellect and often unrestrained personality, celebrated it, challenging Ronald Reagan at the height of his presidency with an expansive and affirmative view of government and a message of compassion, tinged by the Roman Catholicism that was central to Mr. Cuomo’s identity.

A man of contradictions who enjoyed Socratic arguments with himself, Mr. Cuomo seemed to disdain politics even as he embraced it. “What an ugly business this is,” he liked to say. Yet he reveled in it, proving himself an uncommonly skilled politician and sometimes a ruthless one.

He was a tenacious debater and a spellbinding speaker at a time when political oratory seemed to be shrinking to the size of the television set.


Delivering the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, he eclipsed his party’s nominee, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, seizing on Reagan’s description of America as a “shining city on a hill” to portray the president as unaware of impoverished Americans.

“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.’ ” The speech was the high-water mark of his national political career, making him in many ways a more admired figure outside his state than in it.

Mario Cuomo during his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
Mario Cuomo during his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. AP/File/1984

President Obama on Thursday called Mr. Cuomo ‘‘a determined champion of progressive values, and an unflinching voice for tolerance, inclusiveness, fairness, dignity, and opportunity.’’

‘‘His own story taught him that as Americans, we are bound together as one people, and our country’s success rests on the success of all of us, not just a fortunate few,’’ Obama said.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said, ‘‘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. . . . He was a colossal political mind and represented the very best of public service.’’

Mr. Cuomo enjoyed victories in New York. He closed the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island, ending a long fight over its potential dangers. He signed ethics legislation under a cloud of scandals involving state lawmakers.


But he may be remembered more for the things he never did than for what he accomplished. His designs on the presidency became just flirtations. He encouraged President Bill Clinton to consider him for a seat on the Supreme Court but pulled back just as the offer was about to be made in 1993.

For all his advocacy of an activist government, he did not always practice it, or could not, because of the fiscal obstacles he encountered in Albany.

Always given to self-doubt and second-guessing, Mr. Cuomo said that if he had any regrets about his governorship, it was that he had never identified himself with a large initiative that might have been his legacy, as the expansion of the State University of New York was for Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Mr. Cuomo noted that he had built more prison cells than any chief executive in the state’s history. But he added, “What I didn’t do was pick one thing and keep saying it over and over again, so I could have gotten credit for it.”

He had a pointed sense of humor. When an engine failed in a puff of smoke on a state-owned Gulfstream G-1 jet one morning with the governor aboard, he barely noticed, and kept talking about national politics until he noticed that a reporter across the way had stopped taking notes and had turned ashen. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Aren’t you in a state of grace?”


Mr. Cuomo, the first Italian-American to be elected governor of New York, served longer than any of his 51 predecessors except Rockefeller.

He might have surpassed Rockefeller, but in seeking a fourth term in 1994, he was defeated by George E. Pataki, a little-known Republican state senator from Peekskill. Mr. Cuomo’s advisers had counseled him not to run again, but he overruled them.

Andrew Cuomo, a former housing secretary under Clinton, sought to become governor himself in 2002, but withdrew from the Democratic field amid an uproar over remarks he had made questioning Pataki’s leadership after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He ran again in 2010 and was elected. It was a redemptive moment for the Cuomo family, and the first time in New York’s history that a father and son had been elected chief executive. Andrew Cuomo was handily reelected in November.

Mario Cuomo, a lawyer by profession, could trim his sails in the face of opposition, but he held to more than a few positions that went against the grain of public opinion.

Most prominent was his opposition to the death penalty, a view that contributed to his defeat by Edward I. Koch in the 1977 mayoral primary in New York and that nearly derailed his first bid for governor. His annual veto of the death penalty became a rite, and he invoked it as a testimony to his character and principles.


Mario Matthew Cuomo was born in Queens on June 15, 1932, the fourth child of Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo. His parents, penniless and unable to speak English, had come to the United States from the province of Salerno, south of Naples, settling in Jersey City.

Mario Cuomo grew up in the South Jamaica section of Queens, where the family had moved and opened a grocery store. He worked in the store and on Saturdays served as the “Shabbos goy” for an Orthodox synagogue up the street, providing services as a non-Jew that the faithful were not allowed to do for themselves on the Sabbath.

South Jamaica — an “Italian-black-German-Irish-Polish neighborhood,” as he described it — provided him with a career’s worth of anecdotes.

It was baseball, not politics, that first engaged him. After graduating from St. John’s Preparatory School in Queens in 1949, he played on the freshman baseball team at St. John’s University.

A strapping 6 feet tall, 190 pounds at age 19, he signed a contract to play center field for the Class D Brunswick Pirates in Georgia in 1952, reportedly receiving a $2,000 signing bonus. His baseball career was short-lived. Knocked in the head with a ball that summer, he was left blind for a week and had to give up the game.

Mr. Cuomo went back to St. John’s and graduated in 1953, having majored in Latin American studies, English, and philosophy. By then he had settled on a law career and married Matilda N. Raffa, a fellow student. On a scholarship he enrolled in St. John’s Law School; while he studied there, his wife, who survives him, supported them as a teacher.

Besides her and Andrew Cuomo, Mario Cuomo leaves four other children, Dr. Margaret I. Cuomo, Maria Cuomo Cole, Madeline Cuomo O’Donohue, and Christopher Cuomo, a journalist at CNN; and several grandchildren.

N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo embraced his father after the younger was re-elected this past fall.
N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo embraced his father after the younger was re-elected this past fall. Lucas Jackson/REUTERS/File