People had a habit of underestimating Hugh Carey, the former New York governor who died the other day at age 92. They thought he was a sure loser when he ran for Congress in 1960 against a popular Republican incumbent. But he won. They thought he would finish well behind better known rivals when he ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1974. They were wrong—he won in a walk and then won the general election with ease. He was no lock for re-election to a second term in 1978, but once again, he proved his doubters wrong.
But his electoral victories were a footnote to his more substantive achievement: the saving of New York City in 1975. It took guts, creativity, determination and no small amount of courage. Mr. Carey had to run roughshod over a one-time ally, Mayor Abe Beame, who was incapable of taking the steps necessary to keep the city from a financial catastrophe. He had to force labor unions to accept enormous concessions, including the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. He had to persuade the banks to buy the city’s paper at a time when it was borrowing to pay daily operating expenses.
It was an astonishing achievement, one that is worth revisiting today, when the nation is crying out for leadership and every special interest seems determined to protect its turf no matter what. Mr. Carey was a liberal Democrat who became governor in 1975, when the state was about to learn the true cost of Nelson Rockefeller’s long spending spree. The freshman governor told legislators and citizens alike that New York could no longer afford to spend money it didn’t have. Just a few months later, the city nearly collapsed when lenders realized that it had no intention of heeding the new governor’s words.
Mr. Carey did not let events dictate his response. He acted as though he was born for the role he assumed during a tumultuous and very scary time in New York history. With charm and with brute force, he persuaded all concerned that they had a part to play in rescuing a great city—and even the state itself—from fiscal disaster.
It was Hugh Carey’s moment, and he rose to the occasion. As New York bids him farewell, the lessons of his time as governor remain relevant. Those in City Hall, Albany and Washington, D.C., would profit by following his example.