The Mario Cuomo Years

Word that former Gov. Mario Cuomo is ill with a heart condition should give every New Yorker pause for reflection. Mr. Cuomo is 82 years old, two decades removed from the end of a remarkable 12-year tenure in Albany. For most of that time, Mario Cuomo was considered a presidential candidate in waiting, an eloquent spokesman for Democrats in the Age of Reagan. Of course, he never did become a national candidate, but through force of personality, he made Albany an exciting place to be in the 1980s. And that’s no small accomplishment.

Mr. Cuomo’s place in New York’s memory actually precedes his election as governor in 1982. His mayoral campaign against Ed Koch in 1977 was one-for-the-ages and established him as no mere politician, but a leader, a statesman, even, on occasion, a philosopher. Mr. Cuomo and Koch dueled with each other three times during the tumultuous summer of ’77, once in the multi-candidate Democratic mayoral primary, then in a primary run-off between the two of them, and then in the general election as Mr. Cuomo ran on the Liberal Party line.

The campaign between them was counterintuitive: Koch, a liberal Jew from Manhattan, soared from relative obscurity through his support for the death penalty. His campaign was visceral and emotional; he rolled up his sleeves and fairly begged for affection. Mr. Cuomo, an Italian-American from Queens, played the role of detached intellectual, opposing the death penalty as a matter of principle and humanity. We know how that turned out.

They went at it again in 1982, but this time Mr. Cuomo won the prize, defeating Koch in the Democratic primary and Lew Lehrman in the general election. He became a national treasure with a remarkable keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 as he sought to counter Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism with a plea for the less-fortunate and the disenfranchised. His argument did not win the day, but he became his party’s most passionate spokesman. He might have been the party’s presidential candidate in the two following elections, 1988 and 1992, but he chose to remain in Albany.

The media portrayed him as an old-fashioned liberal, but in practice, he was a tax-cutter and a prison-builder, among other things. After disturbances between Orthodox Jews and African-Americans in Crown Heights in 1991, Mr. Cuomo ordered his criminal justice commissioner, Richard Girgenti, to conduct an exhaustive study of the disturbance. The ensuing report portrayed a city in crisis, poorly served by its top leaders, including Mayor David Dinkins and his police commissioner. The Girgenti report documented the city at rock bottom, and it was to Mr. Cuomo’s credit that he stood by its findings despite tremendous pressure from fellow Democrats.

Mario Cuomo is a living legend of the rarest sort: He commands respect from friend and foe alike. He reminds us that it is possible to argue without being rude and disrespectful. It just takes more effort and thought.

Best wishes, Gov. Cuomo. Get well soon.

The Mario Cuomo Years