New York lost one of its native-born jewels recently: Mario Cuomo, a larger-than-life leader whose words inspired a nation and spoke truth to power, has passed. And with him goes an era of passionate liberalism, a credo he embraced while others ran away from it.
Three decades ago, which feels like a lifetime in New York years, Mario Cuomo spoke about "a tale of two cities" in America, lashing out at the trickle down economics and social Darwinism of the Reagan era, when this country began its slide towards the gilded era of today. While many lauded his eloquence and his passion, few heeded his warnings that too many Americans were being left behind and that Reagan's "shining city on the hill" only applied to the upper class.
Mario Cuomo was ahead of the curve and his social analysis was prophetic. His thunderous speech at the Democratic convention in 1984 could have catapulted him to the White House in the same way that Barack Obama's inspiring words did just 24 years later. But Mario Cuomo was from a different generation with different ambitions and he decided that he would rather stay in the statehouse in Albany.
His left of center leanings -- from his principled stance against the death penalty to his belief in robust social programs -- branded him a liberal, at a time when that philosophy had not yet been neutered by people who preferred to refer to themselves as progressives. Cuomo was endorsed in every one of his campaigns by New York State's Liberal Party and, in return, he was one of its most popular stalwarts.
How ironic it is that when his son Andrew made his first foray into elective politics in 2002, his incomplete campaign resulted in the Liberal Party losing its ballot status after more than six decades. Wouldn't it be a great tribute to his father's brand of liberalism if Andrew Cuomo now became its standard bearer in the next decade?
Mario Cuomo's impressive career in public service -- from the time four decades ago he was a tenants lawyer in Queens and impressively mediated a high-profile housing dispute, to the day before he died when he critiqued son Andrew's State of the State message ("Not bad for a second-termer," he quipped) -- defined New York State in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Cuomo gave voice to the voiceless, spoke for the dispossessed, and believed in a government that could provide a hand up for those left behind. He was a proud Liberal, and carried the banner of that once-powerful party for more than a decade.
Cuomo's archrival for more than two decades was the late New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch. If they had been boxers, Cuomo would have been Muhammad Ali; Koch was more like Joe Frazier. The political heavyweights, like their boxing counterparts, split their first two matches: Koch took the opening bout for mayor in 1977, while Cuomo came back with a lightning uppercut and won the gubernatorial race in 1982. Their uneasy peace in the 1980s left the Democratic Party in the State with two wings: the Liberal branch led by the silver-tongued orator from Forest Hills and the more centrist faction led by the smart aleck and acerbic former congressman from Greenwich Village.
Many said Koch's middle initial 'I' was more pronoun than abbreviation. Cuomo, on the other hand, was dubbed "Hamlet on the Hudson" because many believed he would see eight sides to each issue and engage in an interior monologue about each that made his decision-making worthy of treatises, not twitter. His scholarly speeches and style of governing made him more of a man of the cloth or an academic, not a rapid-fire straight talker like his nemesis downstate in Gracie Mansion.
Cuomo was a complex but pragmatic man who could at once be the leading voice against the death penalty but then go on to build many new prisons in upstate New York. He could prune the New York State budget in a lean economy but still speak eloquently for the need to do more to help our underclass. He was a pious Catholic but he famously defended a women's right to choose.
Cuomo once said rather poignantly: "In politics, we campaign in poetry and govern in prose." This statement is true for many politicians, most recently our current president Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign rhetoric inspired a nation while his next six years of governing lulled many into a less exalted state.
But much of politics and leadership is about inspiration, moving society to heed its better angels and about articulating a moral map during an era that sorely needs ethical representation. Mario Cuomo was a politician from a bygone era: a child of immigrants who through the sheer force of his intellect and his oratorical skills stood at the precipice of the highest office in the land. He talked about lifting the weak and the poor and he never wavered from his core principles.
May we see more of his ilk in the coming years and may his words of wisdom from the 1984 Democratic convention inspire all of us to end our nation's "tale of two cities."
Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, was the Liberal Party-backed candidate for Mayor in 2012.