Mario (Matthew) Cuomo (b South Jamaica, Queens Co, 15 June 1932). Governor. Born to an immigrant Italian family, Cuomo received his law degree from St. John's University in 1956, afterward serving as confidential legal assistant to State Court Appeals judge Adrian P. Burke. Cuomo came to public attention while an attorney in private practice when he mediated a public housing dispute in Queens, about which he wrote in his Forest Hills Diary (1974). He failed in a quest for the democratic nomination for mayor of New York City in 1977, served as the appointed secretary of state from 1975 - 1978, and was elected Lieutenant Governor in tandem with Huge Carey in 1978.
In 1982 Cuomo became the first Italian American governor of New York State. His first independently won elective office. In defeating Republican Lewis Lehrman, Cuomo drew his greatest support from New York City. In 1986 he was reelected by a wide majority and in 1990 by a lesser margin in a three-way race. Employing the powerful image of the "Family of New York," Cuomo in his first inaugural address communicated inclusiveness, seeking to calm the partisan and interbranch tensions that marked Gov Carey's final year. This message was reenforced by his appointment of upstate Republican Richard D. Simons to the court of appeals. He later appointed the state's first African American, the first two women (including the chief judge Judith Kay), and the first Latino Court of Appeals judges. The new governor worked to balance the budget by cutting spending and raising taxes in equal proportions to fill the fiscal gap he inherited and through this strategy achieved timely budgets in his early years in office.
In an era during which government was labeled as the problem, Cuomo insisted on the value of the compassionate use of governmental power to achieve social change. Among the achievements in social policy during his tenure were publicly financed health care programs for low-income children and pregnant women and an emphasis on job training for welfare recipients that anticipated later innovations in national policy. Cuomo's politically costly, principled stand against the death penalty (the legislature passed and he vetoed it for each of his 12 years in office) was a defining element of his governorship, as was his willingness to speak out on such complex questions as the conflicting obligations of a believing Roman Catholic leader in American public life.
Extremely intelligent and an enormously hard worker with a hands-on approach to government, Cuomo was criticized for not trusting others outside a small circle, for not delegating, for lacking priorities, and, in the end, for failing to use the full extent of his powers to reach goals he so eloquently defined. His advocate style in political exchange was often considered abrasive. Cuomo sought but failed to achieve a state take over of Medicaid funding and public financing of elections, although the legislature did enact enhanced ethical standards for New York State's elected officials during his tenure. He encouraged a state constitutional convention to achieve reform, but this effort also fell short.
Divided partisan control of the state legislature for his entire tenure and Republican dominance of the national executive branch for much of it provided a difficult political context for Cuomo's governorship. Co-partisans across the nation expected the state's Republican senate to provide road blocks to Cuomo's presidential prospects, and resources available from Washington to meet social needs were limited. Federal tax cuts in the mid-1980s threatened many states' own income tax bases, requiring New York State's governor to (successfully) lead them in a collected effort to protect these.
Cuomo was regarded as one of the most powerful political orators of his time. In arguing for "only the government we need, but all the government we need," he offered a Democratic alternative to the vision advanced by Pres Ronald Reagan. His televised key note address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention helped make him a serious contender for the presidency in 1988 and 1992, although after months of public Hamlet-like vacillation he backed away on both occasions, giving the nominating address for Bill Clinton's candidacy in 1992. After Clinton was elected, Cuomo declined a proposed nomination to a US Supreme Court seat.
In 1994 Cuomo was defeated by Republican George E. Pataki, then a little-known Hudson Valley state senator. Persistently high crime rates, welfare dependency, and state and local taxes, combined with loss of upstate manufacturing and economic growth in New York State that lagged behind the nation's all led to Cuomo's loss. The longest-serving Democratic governor to date in the state's history, Cuomo returned after his three terms to the private practice of law and became a nationally prominent speaker and commentator on public affairs.
Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 429-430].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.