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Born June 15, 1932
Governor of New York, lawyer, and noted speechmaker
"I learned about our obligation to each other from [my parents]. They asked only for a chance to work and to make the world better for their children and 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."
M ario Cuomo was elected governor of New York three times, each time by a wide margin. Yet he is perhaps best known for "the Speech," a nationally televised address he made during the Democratic Party's 1984 presidential convention. The speech was made memorable when Cuomo described the difficult struggles of his immigrant parents to overcome poverty and hardship to provide for their family.
From the family store to center field
Mario Matthew Cuomo was born in 1932 in an apartment above the family store his parents had purchased the year before. His father, Andrea, and mother, Immaculata, had immigrated to New York City from Salerno, Italy, in the late 1920s. Cuomo's parents knew only how to speak Italian, yet they managed to run the store successfully in their mixed ethnic neighborhood, called South Jamaica, in Queens, a borough, or section, of New York City. Before purchasing the store, Cuomo's father saved money by working as a ditchdigger and by cleaning sewers.
Cuomo knew only a few English words and phrases, learned from his older brother and older sister, when he began elementary school. He quickly became an excellent student, though. Cuomo was also a fine athlete—good enough to earn a professional baseball contract from the Pittsburgh Pirates organization upon graduating from high school. He was playing as a center fielder for the Pirates' minor league team in Brunswick, Georgia, when his baseball career was cut short after he was hit in the head by a pitch.
After spending a month recuperating in a hospital, Cuomo returned home. Convinced he would not make a career as a baseball player, Cuomo enrolled at St. John's University in New York. He helped pay for his education by playing on a semiprofessional basketball team. (Semiprofessional teams usually play in a local league and recruit a few players who are paid by the team's organizer or by a sponsor. Other players are not paid, but they compete to attract the attention of scouts for professional teams.)
Cuomo earned a bachelor's degree in 1953 and went on to law school at St. John's. He graduated with honors at the top of his class in 1956. While attending St. John's, Cuomo met Matilda Raffa, and they were married in 1954. The Cuomos have five children, three daughters and two sons. Matilda Cuomo became a schoolteacher after graduating from St. John's.
Lawyer and politician
After he graduated from law school, Cuomo served as a clerk for a judge in the New York State of Appeals Court. He soon joined a law firm in Brooklyn, New York. In 1963, Cuomo became a partner in the firm and began teaching law part–time at St. John's. In the mid-1960s, he drew attention in New York City for successfully defending neighborhood groups and small businesses against projects that would tear down homes and displace the people who lived and worked there.
In 1972, New York City mayor John Lindsay (1921–2000) appointed Cuomo to assess the impact of building a large housing project for low-income families in an established neighborhood. The proposed development had become bitterly disputed between residents and other community groups. Cuomo's recommendation for a smaller-scale project that would better integrate new and existing residents and local businesses was accepted with enthusiasm. He wrote about the experience in a book, Forest Hills Diary: The Crisis of Low-Income Housing (1977). Presented as a diary, the book records events and shows Cuomo's reactions to people involved in the housing dispute, from politicians to homemakers.
Having established a reputation as defender and an arbiter, or one who helps disputing parties resolve their differences, Cuomo began seeking political office. He was unsuccessful in the Democratic primary, where voters decide on a single candidate to represent a political party, when running for lieutenant governor (second in command) of New York in 1974. Democrat Hugh Carey (1919–), who had attended St. John's and was a friend of Cuomo's, won the governorship. Cuomo later finished second to Edward Koch (1924–) in the election for mayor of New York City in 1977.
Governor Carey appointed Cuomo as New York's secretary of state. In this position, Cuomo won recognition for investigating abuses in state-run nursing homes and for successfully arbitrating land and labor disputes. When Carey ran for reelection in 1978, Cuomo was selected as his running mate. They won the election, and Cuomo quickly emerged as a leader of the New York State Democratic Party. He directed the party's campaign in New York for President Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81) when Carter ran for reelection in 1980.
Cuomo's Political Beliefs
Mario Cuomo called his political philosophy "progressive pragmatism" and a "family kind of politics" in which communities share with and help each other. Those values were formed by his ethnic and religious background as a poor Italian Catholic whose family worked together to improve their lives.
When Carey announced he would not seek reelection in 1982, Cuomo entered the race and contended in the Democratic primary with Koch, who had been a widely publicized and controversial mayor of New York City and had strong groups of support. However, Cuomo proved he had equal support in New York City, especially with union members, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans, and earned more votes than Koch outside the city to win the Democratic nomination.
Cuomo then defeated his Republican opponent, Lewis Lehrman (1938–), and was sworn into office in January 1983.
As governor, Cuomo championed the needs of citizens less privileged. Cuomo faced opposition for his programs from Republican lawmakers interested in reducing government involvement and the taxes used to finance social programs. Republicans were supported in their efforts by the popularity of President Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89), who cut federal programs and taxes. Cuomo's efforts were viewed by Democrats as exactly the kind of approach that represented their constituents, or people represented by a political party. He was invited to make the keynote address (the spotlight speech) at the Democratic National Convention, where the party's presidential and vice presidential candidates were to be officially approved for the 1984 election.
Cuomo's skills as an orator were already appreciated in New York. The convention gave him an opportunity to speak on national television and to communicate to Americans about why they should support the Democratic Party's approach. Cuomo admitted to being nervous about making the speech.
Cuomo's speech was met with a rousing response at the convention and received rave reviews in the press. In the speech, Cuomo moved away from the typical keynote address, which outlines a party's platform, or how the party stands on various issues, and its political differences with the opposing party. He used a phrase by President Reagan, who described America as a "shining city," to argue that many people were not able to share in the opportunities and wealth of the "shining city." (The title of Cuomo's speech was "A Tale of Two Cities.") To emphasize his view, Cuomo became personal—turning to the example of his parents, who were poor immigrants but achieved through hard and honest work the opportunity to provide for their family. Cuomo argued that in the 1980s those less fortunate were facing additional hardship and challenges because of the policies of the Reagan administration.
The speech became influential. "I remember the effect [the speech] had not only on the delegates, but on the hard-bitten, cynical press corps—men and women … whose profession required them to hear the same speeches with the same messages delivered time and again," wrote Terry Golway in America magazine twelve years later. "This speech, however, was different, splendidly written and beautifully delivered." The title of Golway's article, "Blame it on Mario," reflects that after Cuomo's speech, politicians began to routinely use real-life examples to demonstrate the human side of their political programs and the voters they represented.
Staying home in New York
Cuomo's speech at the Democratic Convention gave him national recognition, but he faced challenges in his home state. A growing state budget deficit made it difficult for Cuomo to provide funds for programs to assist those in need. His political philosophy, which he named "progressive pragmatism" and a "family kind of politics," called on communities to share with and help each other. His values were formed in his youth as a poor Italian Catholic whose family worked together to improve their lives. He was a very popular governor and was reelected in 1986 and 1990 by wide margins.
An Excerpt from Mario Cuomo's "A Tale of Two Cities" Speech
On the evening of July 16, 1984, New York governor Mario Cuomo delivered a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, titled "A Tale of Two Cities." A short excerpt follows.
[The] struggle to live with dignity is the real story of the shining city. 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 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 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 of the greatest nation in the only world we know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process.
Many Democrats wanted Cuomo to run for president in 1988. Cuomo considered running but eventually decided against it. He cited his need to work with the state legislature to solve the financial problems facing New York. The legislature had grown increasingly Republican and resisted many of Cuomo's ideas and programs. Again in 1992, Cuomo was encouraged to run for president and he nearly entered the New Hampshire primary—the first test where voters would select from among several presidential candidates. Cuomo again declined to run after careful thought. As in 1988, he cited his state's fiscal, or financial, problems as work that demanded his full and immediate attention.
New York's financial woes and a preference across the nation for Republican candidates in state and national elections led to Cuomo's defeat when he ran for a fourth term as governor in 1994. He was still a respected national figure—rumored to be the first choice of President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) when a vacancy on the Supreme Court occurred in 1993, and he was considered a candidate when Major League Baseball needed a new commissioner the following year. In an interview with Newsweek magazine, Cuomo admitted that he would most enjoy being a Supreme Court justice, "but the place I could do the most good is here and now in New York."
After leaving office, Cuomo remained busy as a popular speaker. He also practiced law and hosted The Mario Cuomo Show, a 1996 weekly radio program that was syndicated, or made available for broadcast, across the country. Cuomo abruptly ended the show, however, to campaign for the reelection of President Clinton. He often appeared on news shows and made speeches in support of Clinton. Cuomo's son, Andrew (1957–), served as President Clinton's secretary of housing and urban development.
Cuomo was sixty-four years old when President Clinton was reelected in 1996. Although he began slowing his schedule, he was still interviewed often to represent the Democratic Party's viewpoints on issues, remained a popular speaker on political topics and the practice of law, wrote introductions to books, and authored a children's book, The Blue Spruce (1999). He continued being active as well in his local New York community and with cross-denominational religious groups, in which people from different religions socialize and work together in areas of common interest.
For More Information
Cuomo, Mario. The Blue Spruce. Chelsea, MI: Sleeping Bear Press, 1999.
Cuomo, Mario. More Than Words: The Speeches of Mario Cuomo. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
McElvaine, Robert S. Mario Cuomo: A Biography. New York: Scribners, 1988.
Miringoff, Lee M., and Barbara L. Carvalho. The Cuomo Factor: Assessing the Political Appeal of New York's Governor. Poughkeepsie, NY: Marist Institute for Public Opinion, 1986.
Clift, Eleanor. "The New Mario Scenario. Democrats Fantasize, but Cuomo's Coy as Ever." Newsweek (July 23, 1990): p. 20.
Golway, Terry. "Blame It on Mario." America (September 14, 1996): p. 6.
Newfield, Jack. "An Interview with Mario Cuomo." Tikkun (May-June 1998): pp. 19–24.
Cuomo, Mario. "A Tale of Two Cities." American Rhetoric.http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/cuomo1984dnc.htm (accessed on March 11, 2004).