When Mario Cuomo died on New Year’s Day, 2015, it was hard not to feel as if a certain kind of politician had left us. Cuomo the elder was an intellectual, self-reflective and brooding, never as comfortable with power as he should have been. He read extensively and cultivated a robust inner life. He was, undoubtedly, a brilliant public speaker, and the video of his 1984 address to the Democratic National Convention is still worth watching for his soaring defense of American liberalism at a time when Ronald Reagan and the Atari Democrats were attempting to dismantle the New Deal consensus. As one of America’s most prominent Democrats, Mario Cuomo understood the symbolism of his role as Governor of New York. Publicly, he would not disappoint. To the end, he was a figure of remarkable gravitas, passing away just before an incendiary brawler from his Queens past would rise to power.
Even Donald Trump, though, seemed to like Mario Cuomo well enough.
This is what I wrote about Cuomo when I covered his funeral for the New York Observer:
There were no former presidents, mayors or foreign dignitaries called forward to eulogize Mario Cuomo, the three-term governor who cast such a long shadow over New York State.
There was only a loving son, now an imperial governor like his father, delivering the eulogy he may have been preparing his whole adult life to give. It was the “simple” and “local” funeral the elder Cuomo wanted, the pastor of Manhattan’s St. Ignatius Loyola Church said, shed of the pomp and circumstance that often characterizes the funerals of the famous and powerful.
It’s hard to find detractors of Mario Cuomo today. While his son, a fellow three-term New York governor named Andrew Cuomo, has cultivated plenty of enemies during his decade in office, Mario Cuomo is still viewed through a certain layer of gauze. If Andrew is a triangulator willing to spit on liberal pieties, Mario was the good Democrat who tried to do what was right. Having only been a small child when Mario Cuomo lost his campaign for a fourth term in 1994, I have no firsthand memories of his tenure as governor. In a way, this has freed me from the mythologizing that has surrounded Mario Cuomo since he left office. I read his obituaries with fresh eyes and was surprised to find how little he accomplished in 12 years. For all of my criticisms of Andrew Cuomo—this newsletter was founded, in part, to raise awareness of how horrendously he failed to initially contain coronavirus in New York—it is clear enough that the son will leave office with far more tangible achievements than his father. The elder Cuomo’s real legacy was far darker: the use of a government entity, created initially for the purpose of building affordable housing, to vastly expand the number of prisons in New York State.
In Albany, as former State Assemblyman Dan Feldman recalled, Cuomo’s rhetoric did not always match the reality of his budgets, particularly after he delivered a rousing address at his first inauguration in 1983.
“A few weeks later, he presented his budget proposals to the Legislature. While Mario faced legitimate pressure to impose drastic cuts, major targets of those cuts were the constituencies with the least political power, like the developmentally disabled and emotionally disturbed,” Feldman wrote. “Nowhere to be found was the ‘compassion’ that seemed so central an element of his inaugural address. Mario gave great speeches. But as time went on, the disconnect between what he said and what he did became ever more apparent.”
As governor, Mario Cuomo supported tax cuts and shrinking government spending, in contrast to his image as a Rooseveltian populist. Unlike Nelson Rockefeller, who created the State University of New York system, there were no long-lasting public works projects that came out of Cuomo’s tenure. “The Governor says he is a liberal, and his national speeches portray him as a New Dealer bent on helping the millions who cannot achieve the American dream on their own,” Jeffrey Schmalz of the New York Times Magazine wrote in a 1988 profile. “But his policies as Governor have been more conservative, with no great expansions of programs for the poor. A severe housing shortage has more than doubled the number of homeless people in New York since he took office.”
By the end of his third term, Cuomo was sounding more and more like the conservatives he had once pilloried, calling for tax cuts on corporations and real estate developers, along with an overhaul of New York’s welfare program.
"Jobs should come first, not welfare," Cuomo said in 1994. "Welfare should be only a last resort."
At least Mario, unlike his son, believed in keeping Democrats in power, right? A foil to Reagan, in theory, wanted to see a more progressives in office. But an examination of news reports, particularly the New York Times’ excellent archive, tells a far different story—if Andrew Cuomo spent almost a decade actively thwarting Democratic ambitions to take control of the State Senate, he was only doing what his own father had done, without the flourish of helping to create a quasi-corrupt third Senate conference.
First, some background: from the 1960s until 2019, with the exception of one brief and chaotic interruption in 2009 and 2010, Republicans controlled New York’s State Senate. This fact, on its face, is absurd. Though New York, in the second half of the 20th century, boasted a far more robust Republican Party and parts of New York City and the suburbs were much more conservative than they are today, New York last supported a Republican presidential candidate in 1984, the year Reagan won re-election. There is no good reason, by party registration, Democrats couldn’t have managed majorities at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s. One obstacle was gerrymandering, sanctioned in part by Democrats in the State Assembly who wanted to protect their majority in return for letting Senate Republicans safeguard their own. Legislative leaders drew their own district lines each decade. Democrats in the Senate always had the deck stacked against them, even during favorable presidential cycles in 1988 and 1992.
The forgotten roadblock was Mario Cuomo. Cuomo, though widely popular in the state, failed to aggressively campaign for State Senate Democrats or raise money for them. He never meaningfully opposed Al D’Amato, the longtime Republican senator, who was the power broker of the New York GOP throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The two men, it was long reported, had a nonaggression pact.
Cuomo would manage a similar arrangement with Albany Republicans. In the last two weeks of his successful re-election campaign in 1990, Cuomo had more than $5 million left to spend, a staggering sum at the time. His opposition was weak and splintered. One candidate was running as a Republican; another was appearing on the Conservative Party line. Both would go on to win about 20 percent of the vote, while Cuomo coasted with 53 percent. Instead of redirecting any of his campaign cash to beleaguered Senate Democrats, Cuomo hoarded all of it for himself.
None of Cuomo’s campaign cash “went to the hard-pressed Democratic candidates for the State Senate, who are borrowing money for the final stages of their effort to win control of the upper house of the Legislature, a campaign in which they have been outspent by the State Senate Republican Campaign Committee by at least 4 to 1,” the Times reported in October of 1990.
Cuomo, meanwhile, made the odd argument that it would be “breaking faith” with his campaign contributors to help Senate Democrats. Earlier that fall, Cuomo did consent to appear at a Senate Democratic fundraiser, which failed to raise the $250,000 Democrats had hoped for at the beginning of the night. But well-heeled donors are less likely to give to the minority party—something that could have been rectified if Cuomo merely authorized a cash transfer from his own campaign account to the Senate Democrats’.
Andrew Cuomo would pull a similar maneuver during his first re-election campaign in 2014, hoarding millions of his own campaign cash as State Senate Democrats went down in defeat.
Ironically, it was the much-maligned 1990 campaign effort that had begun with far more hope for Democrats. Unlike 1986, when he was much more popular and won re-election in a historic landslide, Mario Cuomo declared he was sick and tired of Republicans running the upper chamber in Albany. This time, he said, he would actually fight for the Democrats.
He was, however, predictably vague.
“Mr. Cuomo did not say specifically what he would do but recommended a theme - ‘Take a chance on Democrats for a change’ - and finding good candidates to run on that theme,” the Times reported in 1988.
Cuomo the elder’s reluctance to campaign for Democrats was a long-running frustration. The Times reported in 1987 that Manfred Ohrenstein, the Manhattan Democrat who was the Senate’s minority leader, “more or less catered to the Governor’s wishes. But now, angered that Mr. Cuomo did not do more campaigning for Democratic Senate candidates in November, Mr. Ohrenstein has begun publicly criticizing him.”
Though Cuomo would periodically promise to do more for Democrats, he would inevitably disappoint. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was poised to defeat George H.W. Bush in New York, Senate Democrats were optimistic they could ride Clinton’s coattails to victory. Republicans, again outspending them and again benefitting from gerrymandered districts, prevailed. Cuomo, meanwhile, was too “consumed with campaign work on behalf of the Clinton-Gore ticket and for the economic-development bond act that he proposed, had little time for specific campaigning for Democratic Senate candidates.”
Over the decade, there would be some complicating factors. Not all Senate Democrats, depending on the campaign cycle, wanted Cuomo to appear with them on the trail. In 1990, with his popularity declining in the suburbs and upstate, some Democrats ran away from Cuomo altogether. But campaign rallies are worth a lot less than raw dollars. Cuomo could have hid in Albany and still transferred $2 or $3 million from his campaign account to desperate, underfunded Democratic candidates.
There were a few colorful, if ultimately fruitless, moments from Cuomo’s occasional stumping on behalf of beleaguered Senate Democrats. In 1986, he came down to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst to rally voters on behalf of himself and a Democratic State Senate candidate, Joseph Montalto, who would narrowly fail to unseat a Republican incumbent, Christopher Mega. (Montalto was a one-term state senator who would face Mega three times in six years, winning once and losing twice.) The appearance for a Democrat like Montalto, of course, came after Cuomo "was criticized by some of them for not doing enough to help their campaigns,” the Times wrote.
The biggest cheers were not for Cuomo, but for the Brooklyn-born Lee Mazzilli, the longtime New York Mets outfielder who had been a member of the squad that had just won the 1986 World Series. Mazzilli, who was rallying for Cuomo in the heavily Italian-American neighborhood, tossed Mets caps into the crowd.
“If you support him the way you supported us in the World Series, we'll be all right,” Mazzilli said.