NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo.
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It's been 10 years since Mario Cuomo was governor, but there's never really any getting away from it.
“When they meet you, some of them, for the first time, they’re intrigued to see what that means,” he says. “[They say], ÎWhat is an old governor like? Do they sound like governors? Do they dress like governors?’ You don't have to know me for long to know that there is no sign of the governorship showing.”
In 1994, Mario Cuomo was, as he puts it, elected "a private citizen" when he lost to a then little known state Senator, George Pataki. Cuomo is now a practicing attorney, as he was before he spent some 20 years in government.
When he started out, Cuomo represented the little guy fighting City Hall. His clients are different now.
“A lot of cases it's making rich people richer, that’s true,” he says. “It’s also, to a large extent, helping the economy when I help this company to survive in bankruptcy or come out of bankruptcy - a lot of people will continue to work. So it's the point of view you bring to it."
Cuomo has always been known for his speaking ability, even though his mother may not have always appreciated it.
“I said to my ma in Italian, ÎWhat did you think?’ and she says ÎWhat?’” he says. “I said, ÎMa, didn't you hear all the applause?’ and she says, ÎOh you think that means they like the speech?’” I says, ÎYeah.’ [She says], ÎMaybe they were glad that that it was finished because it was very long.’”
He's also been a prolific author, writing about issues in New York, his campaign for governor, his latest work on his role model, Abraham Lincoln, and “The Blue Spruce,” the story of a tree that stood outside his family's house in Queens.
So he's a children's author too, much like his old political rival Ed Koch.
“Mine was first,” Cuomo says. “And I won a prize. Did Ed win a prize?”
For the record, Ed Koch's children's book was just released.
Mario Cuomo was re-elected twice by record margins. In 12 years as governor, he inspired passion in his supporters and his detractors.
And there were some issues that came to define his time in office, like his opposition to the death penalty.
"It hurts when a woman comes up to you at Brighton Beach, when I'm running against Ed Koch in 1977 for mayor, and spits in my face, and you go home and feel dejected,” he says. “Why? Because you hate the idea that you made anybody feel that way; that angry, that sad, that tortured."
In 1984, his pro-choice stand on abortion rights put him at odds with then Archbishop John O'Connor, who took issue with Catholic, pro-choice politicians like Cuomo and 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro.
The governor responded with a major address at Notre Dame, where he said: “We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force their belief on us.”
This was a seminal speech for Cuomo, but it almost didn't happen. His wife Mathilda didn't think he should go, and it seemed like somebody didn't want him to go. The plane was struck by lightning and dipped in mid-flight.
Cuomo also fell coming off the plane, and then just before the speech: “I have one copy of the speech, and it's on oak tag and it's inked,” he says. “I put it in front of me and start reading it, and I reach for the orange juice and hit the orange juice, and it goes over the speech and the printing starts blurring. And Mathilda and I are trying to blot the thing, and Mathilda all the while is saying, ÎI told you. I told you.’"
For Cuomo, the speech at Notre Dame was but one example of public policy intersecting with his Roman Catholic faith.
"My answer to the archbishop was, ÎWe'll live by it, but don't ask me to force everybody else to live by it,’” he says. “That was the question then, and it is still the question.”
Most Americans first had a chance to hear Mario Cuomo at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, where he gave the keynote address. It established him as a force in the party, and cemented his reputation as a memorable orator.
The speech looked to the future by focusing on his family's past. His parents were Italian immigrants raising a family in one room in the back of their South Jamaica grocery store.
“Very bright people,” Cuomo says of his parents. “He knew how limited he was because he didn't have education. He knew what he had been denied, and she knew what she had been denied - that she should die at 95 without ever being able to read a book. Imagine. And you know growing up that they know that, and still they are working themselves to death in this place, for what? For the three kids."
Mario Cuomo had a talent for sports. He was signed early on to play baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He loved basketball too, but his baseball contract prohibited him from playing in area tournaments, so he used aliases, like Glendy LaDuke and Oiram Omouc - that's Mario Cuomo backwards.
“I was in a tournament in New Jersey under the name Lava Libretti, and the ref was a guy from New York who knew me, and he came over and said, ÎMario - Lava Libretti? What is that?’ I said, ÎLava - always hot,’” he says. “It’s not a bad name."
Cuomo's baseball career ended when he took a pitch in the head. He headed off to St. John's Law School, married Mathilda Raffa, and graduated number one in his class. But no firm would hire him.
He couldn't even get an interview, Cuomo believes, because of his last name. His law school dean even suggested changing his name.
"Can you imagine me as Mark Conrad? Really — with white bucks and flannel pants and a jacket?” he says. “Can you picture me as Mark Conrad? I don’t think so."
Cuomo became a lawyer in 1956. It would be almost 20 years before he started working in government, when he was appointed Secretary of State by then-Governor Hugh Carey.
“I was certain that politics was the last thing in the world I would ever do,” he says. “What I was happiest doing was representing people against the politicians, because coming out of that neighborhood, realizing how little help my father had gotten from government, we never saw a politician."
And yet, Mario Cuomo would go on to lead what he has called the "greatest state in the greatest country."
But any conversation with Cuomo inevitably gets around to the question: Why didn't he run for president? Much has been written and said about the December 1991 night when a plane in Albany was supposedly ready to take Cuomo to New Hampshire to beat the filing deadline for that state's primary.
“First of all, I didn't know there was a plane,” he says. “Nobody believes that either so I usually don't even say it. Why would I need one more thing you don't believe about what I said."
Cuomo has maintained through the years that it was the Senate Republicans' failure to agree with him on a state budget that kept him from running.
"If I had gone without the budget, they would have killed me," he says. “And here in New York the Republicans would have said, ÎYou don't have a budget - everything's a mess."
But maybe there were some personal doubts too.
“It never occurs to anybody to think that maybe the guy felt, ÎI'm not good enough to be president,’” he says. “I can't say to myself, ÎI'm so smart and so wise that you should make me the leader of this country and therefore the leader of much of the world.’ The common sense of it if you're an American is of course you should have that fire in the belly, [but] fire in the belly is mostly ego. So if they can't think of anything else, they think of colon cancer or organized crime. If you have a name like Mario Cuomo, that still happens. I’m not terribly offended by it."
Cuomo's success took him to the statehouse, and might have taken him to the White House. His name was rumored for nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993 before he wrote to then-President Bill Clinton to take his name out of consideration.
But he says his story can't compare with that of his parents.
“Being able to come here, to survive the Depression, survive everything they went through, eventually have a little house and raise a family, and raise them well enough so that we all did well, none of us have been able to equal [my father’s] accomplishments, when you do the calculations properly," he says.
- Budd Mishkin