ALBANY — Mario Cuomo had a loud and liberal voice that inspired a generation of politicians to turn to public service, and a story of humble beginnings that he wove into calls for social justice during his three terms as New York governor and years as a national figure and hesitant presidential candidate.
Cuomo died Thursday of natural causes due to heart failure, just hours after his son Andrew began his second term as New York’s chief executive. He was 82.
The son of Italian immigrants, Mario Cuomo played minor league baseball before embarking on a legal and political career. His oratory and his dedication to progressive policies made him a political star, but despite calls to seek the White House, he never made a run for president.
Hours before his father’s death, the younger Cuomo delivered an inaugural address in which he honored the Democratic stalwart.
“He is in the heart and mind of every person who is here,” Andrew Cuomo said. “He is here and he is here, and 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.”
President Barack Obama telephoned Cuomo Thursday and offered his condolences. In a statement, the president called Mario Cuomo “a determined champion of progressive values, and an unflinching voice for tolerance, inclusiveness, fairness, dignity, and opportunity.”
Cuomo served as New York governor from 1983 through 1994 and became nationally celebrated for his ability to blend the story of his humble upbringing with ringing calls for social justice.
He was also known for the presidential races he stayed out of in 1988 and 1992. Cuomo agonized so publicly over whether to run for the White House that he was dubbed “Hamlet on the Hudson.”
In 1991, Cuomo left a plane idling on the tarmac at the Albany airport rather than fly to New Hampshire and jump into the battle for the presidential nomination at the last minute. He left the door open for a lesser-known governor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Cuomo’s last public appearance came in November, when Andrew was re-elected governor of New York. The frail-looking patriarch and his son raised their arms together in victory at the election-night celebration.
Andrew Cuomo said he showed his second inaugural speech to his father, who declared it was good, “especially for a second-termer.”
Mario Cuomo’s big political break came in 1982 when, as New York’s lieutenant governor, he won the Democratic nomination for governor in an upset over New York Mayor Ed Koch. He went on to beat conservative millionaire Republican Lewis Lehrman.
His reputation for eloquence was secured at the 1984 Democratic National Convention when he delivered his “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address, in which he told of the lessons he learned as the son of a grocer in New York City.
“I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day,” Cuomo told the crowd. “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.”
The electrified delegates in San Francisco cheered, “Mario! Mario! Mario!” and some wondered whether they had chosen the wrong presidential candidate in Walter Mondale.
While Mondale’s candidacy stumbled, Cuomo took his oratorical skill to Notre Dame University, where as the nation’s most famous Roman Catholic supporter of abortion rights, he argued the church should not expect him to press for outlawing abortions, given that many Catholics themselves were having them.
Cuomo was an unusually cerebral politician, given to musing at length about anything from fiscal policy to the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
He was prickly as well as eloquent. Cuomo regularly sparred with reporters, Republicans, fellow Democrats and even children. He once said “I didn’t come into this business to be bland,” and he rarely was. Complaining about what he saw as anti-Italian stereotyping, Cuomo once said the Mafia was “a word invented by people” and “a lot of baloney.” He once had a little boy near tears after asking how old he was and then pressing the child on how he could be sure of that.
In early 1987, he was leading in the polls among prospective White House contenders when he said he would not be a candidate. A more protracted dance in 1991 ended with the filing deadline for the nation’s first presidential primary 90 minutes off. Cuomo walked into a packed news conference in Albany and cited a continuing budget battle with New York’s Republicans in declining to run.
Before the news conference had even ended, the national TV crews were packing up their cameras.
Cuomo easily won re-election for governor in 1986 and 1990. He repeatedly vetoed legislation that would have restored the death penalty in New York, and he closed down the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island. He also built 30 new prisons. Under Cuomo, the state budget grew from $28 billion to $62 billion.
In 1993, he turned down an opportunity to be nominated by Clinton for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, telling the new president in a letter that “by staying active in our nation’s political process, I can continue to serve as a vigorous supporter of the good work you are doing for America and the world.”
Nineteen months later, with voters tired of him, Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth term to George Pataki, a GOP state lawmaker who had promised to cut taxes and bring back the death penalty.
“I wanted to win this more than any political contest I ever had,” Cuomo said as he prepared to leave office. “I’m not good at wanting things in life. I’ve made a habit of not wanting things too much.”
Mario Matthew Cuomo was born on June 15, 1932, and grew up behind the small grocery store run by his parents in Queens.
He attended St. John’s University in New York City, and after graduating with honors in 1953, he spent a summer playing minor league baseball in Georgia for a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. His professional baseball career ended after he was hit in the head by a pitch and spent several days in a hospital.
Cuomo graduated from St. John’s Law School in 1956, tied for top class honors, and soon after went into private practice. He came to the attention of New York City’s political community in 1972 when he successfully mediated a housing dispute in Queens for then-Mayor John Lindsay.
In 1974, Cuomo made his first run for public office, losing a Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. Hugh Carey, the newly elected Democratic governor, appointed Cuomo as New York’s secretary of state.
He lost a race for mayor of New York City to Koch in 1977. During the campaign, posters that read “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” mysteriously appeared in some neighborhoods. Cuomo denied any responsibility, but the bachelor Koch never forgave him.
Cuomo was elected lieutenant governor in 1978.
Following his tenure as governor, Cuomo joined the prestigious Willkie Farr & Gallagher law firm in Manhattan. He continued to give speeches across the country.
Cuomo and his wife, Matilda, had three daughters and two sons. Andrew was New York’s attorney general before becoming governor. His other son, Chris, is a CNN newscaster. Daughter Maria married designer Kenneth Cole. The other two daughters are Dr. Margaret I. Cuomo and Madeline Cuomo O’Donohue.