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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Mario Cuomo's former staffers recall a demanding, benevolent mentor

Gov. Mario Cuomo is interviewed at his office

Gov. Mario Cuomo is interviewed at his office at the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher on May 13, 2009. The former governor discussed his role in the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant decommissioning. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

The death Thursday of former Gov. Mario Cuomo -- 20 years to the day after he left office -- prompted ex-staffers to remember him as a demanding yet benevolent mentor.

In particular these included loyal young government recruits who came to work in the state ombudsman's office in the 1980s. Under Cuomo Secretary of State Gail Shaffer, they were deployed as local eyes, ears and problem-solvers for government and its agencies in a new administration.

From this group, Long Islander Tom DeJesu, nowadays an official at the New York Power Authority, was posted in Mineola starting in February 1983. Cuomo, DeJesu recalled, "knew that out here, it was all Republican territory -- and he wanted to make sure if he came to any kind of public event, all the elected officials were invited. He was very respectful of the electorate."

Francis X. Ryan, who worked for Cuomo on Long Island between 1985 and 1992, said, "It was the greatest time I ever had. Working for him was exhilarating -- 24/7, before the Internet, providing him with information on what he wanted to know about Long Island. He'd ask a million questions. Sometimes I had answers and other times I'd say, 'I have to get back to you, governor.' "

And Cuomo would always make sure to ask how you and the family were doing.

"Believe in something bigger than yourself. That's what Mario Cuomo would often say, reminding us that we are part of something much greater," said a Facebook posting from Mark Grossman, now a lobbyist and public-relations man, who also served as a regional representative.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), by now a 26-year member of Congress, recalled in a published commentary: "During an event in 1984, when I was a New York State assistant secretary of state . . . Mario told me, 'Now listen to me and you'll be OK.' I listened, I learned, and I am doing OK."

Before she was elected to the Assembly from Queens in 1984, Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) served as a Cuomo regional representative. Further west, on Staten Island, lawyer Allen Cappelli first served as regional representative and later was promoted to other posts.

"Cuomo consumed information," Cappelli recalled. "And being with him was a Socratic exercise. He grilled you as to what was going on, what people were saying. He was our mentor and teacher, and certainly gave many of us tremendous opportunities. I loved it -- and I loved him."

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