Mario Matthew Cuomo

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Mario Matthew Cuomo

Mario Matthew Cuomo (born 1932) was a progressive Democrat governor of New York state from 1982 to 1994. He emphasized lower taxes, balanced budgets, public education, and affirmative action, as well as a government-private sector partnership for economic progress. He was often mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for president.

Mario Matthew Cuomo was born on June 15, 1932, in New York City. His parents, Andrea and Immaculata (Giordano) Cuomo, had immigrated from Salerno, Italy, in the late 1920s. His father dug and cleaned sewers and by 1931 had saved enough to open an Italian-American grocery store in the South Jamaica section of Queens, a borough of New York City. Cuomo was born in the family's apartment above the store. He was the youngest of three children; he had a brother and a sister. He spent much of his early life watching his parents work incredibly hard and absorbing their values of respect for family, personal obligations, education, and the law.

Cuomo spoke only Italian until he started local public schools. Seeking a more rigorous academic education, he transferred to a Roman Catholic high school, St. John's Preparatory. A boy who always liked to play ball games, at 19 Cuomo was recruited by the Pittsburgh Pirates to become a professional baseball player. He was sent to play with its minor league team, the Brunswick (Georgia) Pirates, as a center fielder. His doubts about making sports a career won out after a head injury received from a fastball. He returned to school on a scholarship given by St. John's University. Cuomo earned his B.A. degree with high honors in 1953, then entered St. John's School of Law. In June 1954 he married Matilda Raffa, a student at St. John's, who became a school teacher. He earned his law degree in 1956, tied for first in his class.

After graduation, Cuomo became a law clerk with a New York state Court of Appeals judge. In 1958 he went into private practice, joining a Brooklyn law firm. In 1963 he started teaching law part-time at St. John's.

Cuomo soon was drawn into representing community groups in their legal problems. He earned a reputation as a skilled debater and arbitrator. Once, he represented a group of junkyard owners and scrap dealers who sought to save their businesses when their land was condemned by New York City as a proposed site for the 1964-1965 World's Fair. Another time he helped families save their homes from being bulldozed to build a school and athletic field in Corona, Queens. Mayor John Lindsey asked him to settle bitterly hostile neighborhood disputes arising from a plan to build a large-scale low-income housing project in middle-income Forest Hills, Queens. His victories were heavily publicized and the recognition led to suggestions that he seek public office.

Cuomo, with a deep sense of civic obligation, decided to enter public service. In 1974 he ran for lieutenant governor of New York, but lost in a three-way Democratic primary that year. Governor Hugh Carey, an acquaintance from law school, appointed Cuomo secretary of state, beginning January 1975. Cuomo left his law partnership and teaching post to devote his full attention to the office, although he was not required to do so. He worked to expand the duties of secretary of state, intervening in a series of state-wide crises, including a Mohawk Indian lands claim dispute, nursing home practices problems, and rent strikes. The position offered him an extraordinary education in state government.

In 1977 he ran for mayor of New York City. He lost the Democratic primary, facing six rivals. However, he stayed in the race as the nominee of the Liberal Party. Cuomo was defeated by Edward Koch.

Carey, seeking re-election in 1978, asked Cuomo to run on his ticket as lieutenant governor. Cuomo received his party's support. The ticket won in the election. As lieutenant governor, Cuomo traveled the state in the role of ombudsman for citizen problems. He led President Jimmy Carter's 1980 re-election campaign in New York state and was a delegate that year to the Democratic National Convention.

When Carey announced that he would not seek a third term in office in 1982, Cuomo decided to enter the race. He faced his old opponent, Edward Koch, in the struggle for the nomination. Koch, more widely known and far better financed, lost this round. Relying on volunteers and upstate voters, Cuomo won the Democratic primary and, also, a place on the Liberal Party ticket. He narrowly defeated his millionaire Republican opponent in the general election to become New York's 52nd governor.

In 1984 Cuomo delivered the keynote address at the Democratic Party's national nominating convention in San Francisco. He electrified the crowd with his oratorical skills. In 1992 at the Democratic National Convention he gave the speech which nominated Bill Clinton as the Democratic candidate for President. Cuomo himself was sought after to run for the presidential nomination in 1984, 1988, and 1992, but each time he refused.

Cuomo won re-election in 1986 and again, for a third term, in 1990. His vote-gathering abilities broke state records for the percentage of votes received for governor. As governor, Cuomo pushed for lower taxes and balanced budgets. He made public education a top priority. He emphasized a partnership between business and government for economic development. His affirmative action efforts won praise.

In 1994, even after a campaign that was supported by New York City's Republican mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, Cuomo was defeated for re-election by his Republican challenger, George Pataki. Critics have said that Cuomo's brand of social liberalism had been discredited in the public mind, in favor of less government. In 1995, shortly after taking office, Pataki passed a death penalty law, after two decades of vetoes by his two Democratic predecessors.

Cuomo spoke of his political orientation as "progressive pragmatism." He was influenced by his ethnic, religious, and lower-class upbringing. He reminded people of America's immigrant heritage and the upward mobility of its people. His political philosophy was a "family kind of politics" that conceived of people sharing their burdens and blessings and understanding that their individual well-being depends on the well-being of the community. Thus, he believed that government has a responsibility to help those who through no fault of their own are either permanently or temporarily unable to help themselves.

Cuomo is an introspective person, keeping diaries to explore his own motivations and sort his thinking. He has been described as being a workaholic, competitive, having a quick temper, and refusing to delegate authority. Cuomo considers himself devoted to his family and friends. He doted on his three daughters and two sons. His elder son, Andrew, managed his father's campaigns and served as a chief adviser to the governor. Andrew Cuomo became Secretary of Housing & Urban Development in the second term of President Bill Clinton.

Mario Cuomo has authored books about public policy, social and cultural issues, New York, and his life, both personal and political. He also hosts a radio call-in show in New York City.

Further Reading

Mario Cuomo has written two books recording major episodes in his life, based on his diaries. Both have biographical portions and personal meditations that give insight into the many forces that shape his character: Forest Hills Diary: The Crisis of Low-Income Housing (1974); and Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo: The Campaign for Governor (1984). He described New York State, its challenges and accomplishments in The New York Idea: An Experiment in Democracy (1994). He also released More Than Words and Lincoln On Democracy (which he co-edited). A fascinating biography is Robert S. McElvaine, Mario Cuomo: A Biography (1988). A study of Cuomo's political support and issues is Lee M. Miringoff and Barbara L. Carvalho, The Cuomo Factor: Assessing the Political Appeal of New York's Governor (1986). Information about Cuomo's political career can be followed in a biennial series, The Almanac of American Politics, by Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa. □

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Mario M. Cuomo

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