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Mario Cuomo, 3-Time Governor of New York, Dies at 82

Mario M. Cuomo, who forged extraordinary oratorical skills, a potent immigrant's story and an intellectual liberalism to win three terms as governor of New York, died Thursday at 82 in his Manhattan apartment.

By Paul Grondahl

Mario M. Cuomo, who forged extraordinary oratorical skills, a potent immigrant's story and an intellectual liberalism to win three terms as governor of New York, died Thursday at 82 in his Manhattan apartment.

He had been hospitalized Nov. 26 in New York City with a heart condition, but was released after several days in the hospital. News of his death spread just hours after his son Andrew took the oath of office to begin his own second term as governor.

The arc of Cuomo's life -- growing up above his parents' humble corner grocery store in a multi-ethnic Queens neighborhood, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a law degree and entering public service after winning a fight for a public housing project in Queens -- served as a potent symbol of the American dream.

Cuomo notched some of the highest popular vote totals of any governor in the state's history, and his three terms were unmatched by Democrats in the modern era. He was arguably the most cerebral and intellectual of any New York governor, authored 13 books, was a recognized scholar on Abraham Lincoln and an expert on the French Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.

Cuomo employed a Socratic method of questioning in which he weighed all sides of a political question. He could be a maddening, Sphinx-like figure for political pundits who tried to decipher his intentions, especially when it came to his presidential ambitions. He was dubbed "Hamlet on the Hudson" for his vexing indecisiveness, epitomized by his leaving an airplane idling on the tarmac at Albany International Airport while he debated whether to fly to New Hampshire to enter the 1992 presidential race.

While he became the first Italian-American elected New York governor and his ethnicity played well up and down the Hudson River, Cuomo often wryly noted that the nation was never going to elect a president "whose name ends in a vowel."

In Albany, he lived in the Executive Mansion on Eagle Street for 12 years and helped raise five children with his wife, Matilda Raffa Cuomo, an activist first lady who took on issues of social justice and mentoring troubled children.

He was a down-to-earth presence in the capital city who often jogged around Lincoln Park in old sweatpants and a Yankees baseball cap, dined at Lombardo's Italian restaurant just down the Madison Avenue hill, or played basketball with aides on a hoop in a parking lot behind the mansion -- even once showing up without fanfare at an urban pickup game on the Washington Park basketball courts.

Insomniacs or late-night pedestrians on Eagle Street could often spy a light burning in a second-story study in the mansion, where Cuomo spent countless solitary hours ruminating with pen and paper about philosophy, politics and religion in a diary. Selections were published in 1984.

He was the patriarch of Albany's most famous political dynasty: He and Andrew Cuomo are the only father-son gubernatorial duo in the state's history.

The Cuomos' combined five terms, spanning the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, is unprecedented in New York, too, even more remarkable than gubernatorial family history of Theodore Roosevelt and his distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In his new memoir, "All Things Possible," the younger Cuomo credited his father with teaching him potent political lessons and giving him his start in the family business as a $1-a-year gubernatorial aide.

While the elder Cuomo avoided casting a long shadow or inserting himself into the gubernatorial affairs of his son, there are inevitable comparisons. While their political styles are starkly different, the son tapped several of his father's loyal staffers for his own administration and regularly sought his father's counsel.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose voice and cadence bear an uncanny resemblance to his father's, mentioned in his inaugural speech in New York City that he had run its text past his ailing father, whom he said was too ill to attend in person.

"He said it was good, especially for a second-termer," the governor said at One World Trade Center. "See, my father is a third-termer. But he sends his regards to all of you. He couldn't be here physically today, my father. But my father is in this room. He is in the heart and mind of every person who is here. ... His inspiration and his legacy and his experience is what has brought this state to this point. So let's give him a round of applause."

"The family is all together and very sad," said a person who answered the telephone in hushed tones at the late governor's apartment Thursday night. The family released a brief obituary that said funeral arrangements would be announced shortly.

As a first-term governor still trying to put his stamp on the office, Cuomo became a rising star in the Democratic Party with his stirring keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

Titled "A Tale of Two Cities," the speech was a fierce rebuttal to President Ronald Reagan's "Shining City on the Hill" speech and an indictment of the Republican party's embrace of trickle-down economic policies. In lyrical prose and a soaring preacher's cadence, Cuomo offered a jeremiad against what he considered a morally bankrupt political system that created the haves and have-nots in America, and argued for a renewed focus and special care on the poor and marginalized.

He ended his speech -- subsequently praised as one of the greatest political speeches in the 20th century -- with a hosanna of personal testimony: "That struggle to live with dignity is the real story of the shining city," Cuomo said. "And it's a story, ladies and gentlemen, that I didn't read in a book, or learn in a classroom. I saw it and lived it, like many of you. I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example. I learned about our kind of democracy from my father.

"And I learned about our obligation to each other from him and from my mother. They asked only for a chance to work and to make the world better for their children, and they -- they asked to be protected in those moments when they would not be able to protect themselves. This nation and this nation's government did that for them.

"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, in the greatest nation, in the only world we would know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process," Cuomo said.

"That speech was his zenith, summing up everything he believed in and what we should believe in," said author Harold Holzer, a former Cuomo aide and a Lincoln scholar who collaborated with Cuomo on "Lincoln on Democracy" and other books.

"Working with Mario was the greatest part of my life, and he was the greatest man I ever met," Holzer said. "I'd never met anyone else who matched him intellectually. I came to think of him as Lincolnesque. ... He could quote Lincoln whatever the situation was. He was absolutely brilliant. And he faced the same complaints in his lifetime as Lincoln, in terms of being (criticized as) intellectually arrogant and enigmatic and with an air of superiority."

Holzer said Cuomo's decision not to run for president and to later turn down President Bill Clinton's offer to make him a Supreme Court justice were much simpler to explain than the dark conspiracies some political observers floated.

"He loved being governor of New York and it was the greatest job he ever wanted, and he didn't want anything more," Holzer said.

For his biographer Robert S. McElvaine, who published "Mario Cuomo: A Biography" in 1988, the reality was as complicated as the man himself.

McElvaine wrote that Cuomo was a man who "has a very large ego that he must struggle to keep in check, who enjoys winning a bit too much, who is not as selfless as he knows he should be, who can be vindictive, plays hardball politics more than there is any reason to, sometimes constructs an image of himself that is not entirely in keeping with reality, works obsessively, and spends less time with his family than he knows he ought to."

He added that Cuomo "is more aware of his faults than most of us are of ours, who has great compassion rooted in deep religious belief, and possesses extraordinary talent and intellect."

Many of Cuomo's inner circle developed an exceptionally deep devotion rare for politics. Several of his senior aides continued to gather regularly for reunions and to reminisce about a man whom they described as a mentor, and almost a father figure. He was also a fierce taskmaster and a workaholic who expected nothing less from his staff.

"He could get by with three or four hours of sleep most nights, and he'd complain to us how many hours we were wasting sleeping," recalled Pat Bulgaro, who served as Cuomo's budget director for 10 years and kept in regular contact with the late governor.

"I remember being awakened often at 5:30 a.m. by a sputtering, angry governor on the phone, and he wanted to know why he didn't have a memo yet on that problem in Westchester and why he hadn't been briefed yet," Bulgaro recalled. "He was capable of eruptions, but it was like being in the middle of a hurricane and it quickly passed. And the next time you talked, it was gone. He didn't hold grudges."

Bulgaro first met Cuomo in 1975, when the future governor was appointed Secretary of State by Gov. Hugh Carey as a kind of consolation prize after losing his primary bid to become lieutenant governor, a post that went to Mary Anne Krupsak.

Rather than being embittered by his political defeat, Bulgaro said Cuomo was loose, jocular and sociable in his early days as Secretary of State, in sharp contrast to the almost monastic image of the shut-up diarist he later cultivated.

Bulgaro and Cuomo met regularly at a Madison Avenue bar, Downtown Johnny's (now the Hill Street Cafe), and would order vodka cocktails and tell marvelous stories.

"He was a great raconteur," Bulgaro recalled.

Bulgaro had grown up in the Italian-American enclave of the city's South End, and the two spoke proudly about their ethnic heritage. But Cuomo was also a political pragmatist.

"He talked about how being of immigrant stock, it would be difficult for him to overcome -- like (John F. Kennedy) climbing the hill of Catholicism," Bulgaro said. "He knew it was an obstacle he need to deal with, and he did so brilliantly in his speech in San Francisco."

Bulgaro said he also never met anyone as fiercely competitive as Cuomo. Once, as midnight approached and he and staff members were working late on the budget, Cuomo summoned them to the Red Room, a ceremonial space for bill signings and news conferences accessible through a secret hidden wall passage to the governor's suite of offices. Cuomo had hosted a Red Room event earlier that day to honor the state's high school basketball champions and two full-sized hoops, used as props, remained in place.

"The governor flicked on the lights and said, 'Let's play,'" Bulgaro recalled. "It had been a long night, we were tired, but he insisted. He picked Mary Ann Crotty for his side and I teamed up with Drew Zambelli. Even in that situation, the governor played rough. I'd drive to the hoop, he'd foul me hard. He wanted to win. He had to win. And he did."

Cuomo credited his successful 1982 run as governor to Albany's late Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd, who was the first major political figure to back Cuomo even though he had lost to Krupsak, and also to Ed Koch in the race for New York City Mayor.

"Mayor Corning believed in Cuomo from the beginning when others considered him a two-time loser," said historian Jack McEneny, a former state assemblyman and longtime Corning aide. "Corning saw something in him that nobody else did. He was impressed by his intellectualism and his fight."

Cuomo staged a political comeback and defeated Koch for the governorship in the '82 campaign after Koch made disparaging remarks about upstate New York as a cultural backwater.

"You learn a lot more in politics from losing than you do from winning, and Cuomo took that to heart," McEneny said.

"He was the greatest public intellectual the public has ever known," said Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC-FM, who hosted a radio talk show with Cuomo, called "Me & Mario," for many years and published a book of the same name.

"He had a brilliant sense of humor that I'll always remember," Chartock said. "I get wet around the eyes remembering what a remarkable person he was and all he did for this station."

In his 2004 book, "Why Lincoln Matters: Today More than Ever," Cuomo talked about his political idol and why Lincoln should be studied by each successive generation.

"As the richest nation in the world we have only our own lack of political will to blame for the large number of Americans who are unemployed, poor, not properly cared for when ill, or struggling not to slide backward economically," he wrote. "Lincoln's message to us is clear. He calls upon us to meet those challenges by going forward, painful step by painful step, to enlarge the greatness of this nation with 'patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people' here in our still imperfect Union."

(c)2015 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)

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