A Personal Memory of Former Governor Mario Cuomo

When last April, in Oklahoma, Clayton Darrell Lockett died of a heart attack after a failed execution by lethal injection, going through the atrocity of 43 minutes of pain, I thought of interviewing former Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, a champion in the fight against the inhumanity of the death penalty.

I did not have high hopes that Mr. Cuomo was going to concede the interview; lately he was living pretty much out of the limelight and I am not a "big" name that he could have known or appreciated anyway before. But I always give a chance to miracles to happen, so I sent him an email with my request. For two days I didn't get any reply so I thought, "Ok, no miracle this time."

The third day, it was during the morning, I was sitting at my desk, when my phone rang.

"Hello," I said.

"Good morning, Angela Vitaliano?" asked a voice.

I had no clue who was on the phone and I was totally distracted by the fact that, for once, my complicated last name had been pronounced correctly.

"Yes, speaking, who is there?" I said with some impatience in my voice, looking at the screen of my computer, where a sentence was waiting to be completed.

"I am Mario Cuomo," he said.

For a few seconds, my mind was crossed by an array of thoughts: from "Damn, I don't have any questions ready" to "give me a pen!!!", while at the same time, many other silly voices in my head were screaming that I was going to fail the interview because I was not ready.

"Good morning Mr. Governor," I replied after a very short moment that felt as long as a lifetime. After that, our conversation was easy and amazingly interesting.

Mostly I listened to him: his words on the death penalty were enlightening and touching together. The severe tone of his voice doubled my respect for him, but didn't make me uncomfortable or worried for my accent or any possible mistakes. And I felt some emotion in his voice when he told me an episode of his youth that involved his mother:

"I was a little kid and it was Christmas time. I was with my mom in Jamaica, Queens, and she told me that I could pick a toy, but only one. I looked around the store and I came back to her with a toy gun in my hand. She saw it and immediately slapped my hand and said "don't hold a gun anymore in your life unless you are a cop. Weapons kills people." That was the moment when I realized how precious the life of a human being is and how much respect we always have to show for it."

Mr. Cuomo didn't hesitate to admit that he felt ashamed because his own country was still using death penalty, but added that he was confident in a different outcome for the future.

"Sometimes people ask me "but what if someone would hurt Matilda or your kids?" and I reply, every time, that of course I would feel anger and a need to get "justice" but this is why we are a country of law and the law is good because is not about personal feeling or rage, but about fairness and humanity and civilization".

Our conversation led to the writing of one of the articles that I am most proud of, and that was published on May 15, 2014 for espresso.repubblica.it.

When I heard that Mr. Cuomo passed away, some details of our conversation came back to me and perhaps, if you aren't familiar with the "attitude" of Italian politicians, you won't understand how powerful these details were for me. Mr. Cuomo called me in person, no one announced him; he never, during our conversation, used the "paisano" card to make our conversation more confidential -- being an American from Italian origins doesn't mean that you are any less a leader of "your" country and that you keep your institutional attitude when needed. He didn't use any title to introduce himself and at the end of our conversation he said "thank you".

We lost a great man, a giant in the history of the city, of the State and of the country, the country he loved and wanted to make better, fighting one of its most horrible practices: death penalty. And, as an Italian in New York, I feel we lost one of those "Italians" who make me very proud.

May you rest in peace Mr. Cuomo and my condolences to the governor Andrew Cuomo and the whole Cuomo's family.