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Mario Cuomo, former three-term New York governor, dies at 82

Mario Cuomo on May 13, 2009: The three-term

Mario Cuomo on May 13, 2009: The three-term governor died on Jan. 1, 2015. Credit: Charles Eckert

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who championed the power of government and liberalism to advance society with eloquence and compassion, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.

His death came hours after his son was sworn in to his second term as New York's governor.

The family said in a statement, "the Governor passed away from natural causes due to heart failure this evening at home with his loving family at his side."

Earlier Thursday, at his swearing-in, Andrew M. Cuomo said: "I went through the speech with him. He said it was good, especially for a second-termer. See, my father is a third-termer. But he sends his regards to all of you. He couldn't be here physically today, my father. But my father is in this room . . . and his inspiration and his legacy and his experience is what has brought this state to this point."

Mario Cuomo, a Queens Democrat, served three terms as the state's 52nd governor from 1983 through 1994 and for years was the choice of top Democratic operatives to run for president or, later, to join the U.S. Supreme Court. He rose to power during an era of New York politics in the 1970s through '90s that Andrew Cuomo has called a time of giants, which included Gov. Hugh L. Carey and New York City Mayor Edward Koch.

"Mario paired his faith in God and faith in America to live a life of public service -- and we are better for it," said President Barack Obama in a statement.

Former Republican Gov. George Pataki, who ousted Cuomo in a 1994 political upset, called his former rival "a great New Yorker."

"Governor Cuomo was a proud son of immigrants and a compassionate leader who possessed a soaring intellect," Pataki said. "He was a great New Yorker who will be missed."

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Cuomo left an "indelible" legacy, adding, "He was a colossal political mind and represented the very best of public service."

A 'giant' in NY history

Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the State Senate's temporary president and majority coalition leader, said, "It's very sad to lose a giant in the political history of New York State."

Politically, Mario Cuomo began as a community organizer in Queens. He was assigned by Mayor John Lindsay in 1972 to quell a brewing racial flashpoint over a low-income housing project planned for Forest Hills. Chosen for his temperament, Cuomo earned a reputation as a reasoned, deliberate problem-solver that would characterize his politics.

In 1975, he was appointed secretary of state by Carey. In 1978, Cuomo was elected lieutenant governor under Carey, and then governor in 1982.

Cuomo's tenure as governor began with his successful negotiation to end a prison uprising at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, eight days after taking office. But much of his time in Albany was dominated by New York's economic problems and political fights reflecting deep divisions between upstate and downstate interests.

He appointed the first woman and the first African-American to full terms on the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, ended the long-criticized practice of "spring borrowing" that plagued state finances, and began to address acid rain pollution in Adirondack State Park caused by emissions from Midwest coal-burning plants.

Though known nationally as a liberal, Cuomo presided over the largest expansion of prisons in state history. As New York City grappled with the crack epidemic, Cuomo and lawmakers opened 29 prisons and several youth correctional facilities, more than were built in the state's history at the time.

Cuomo said he developed his perspective on life and politics through his parents' small grocery at 150th Street and 97th Avenue in South Jamaica, Queens. He grew up in Briarwood and attended PS 50, then St. John's Preparatory School and later St. John's University and its law school.

As a public figure, he often spoke about those days growing up as the son of Italian immigrants. "I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day," Cuomo recalled in one speech. "I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example. I learned about our kind of democracy from my father. And I learned about our obligation to each other from him and from my mother."

His love of baseball gave him decades of stories from a short stint in the minor leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He often said he used his signing bonus to pay for an engagement ring for Matilda Raffa, joking that it was a better investment than a career in baseball. They were married in 1954 and had five children: Margaret, Andrew, CNN news anchor Chris Cuomo, Maria and Madeline.

Cuomo was known for his humor, which he often used in debates or to soften his image as a fierce foe or out-of-touch liberal.

"An astrologist sent me a horoscope that said I was going to die on Election Day," Cuomo wrote in his published campaign diary under an entry for the day before the 1982 election for governor. "I don't know if she meant literally or figuratively. Just in case she means it literally, I think I'll vote early."

As governor, he worked with and battled Democrats in New York City, Republican Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson of Binghamton, and President Ronald Reagan, whom he chided for "Darwinism" in governance.

DNC speech fueled rumors

It was his 1984 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco that fueled speculation that he would be a presidential candidate.

He touted popular liberalism, which he said had been tarnished by the conservative surge under Reagan and his view of America as a "shining city on the hill."

Cuomo said to cheers, "We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech that I could write what a proper government should be: the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings -- reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race, or sex, or geography, or political affiliation.

"We believe in a government strong enough to use words like 'love' and 'compassion' and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities," he said.

Two months later, his speech at the University of Notre Dame addressed abortion -- a subject that remains a flashpoint for politicians and a dangerous topic for Roman Catholic politicians such as himself. Cuomo, New York's first Italian-American governor, didn't merely try to defend his support of abortion rights; he tried to recast the national argument and build a bridge.

"There is a sense that tells us it's wrong to presume to speak for God or to claim God's sanction of our particular legislation and His rejection of all other positions," Cuomo said at the Catholic university.

"Most of us are offended when we see religion being trivialized by its appearance in political throwaway pamphlets," Cuomo said. "The American people will tolerate religious leaders taking positions for or against candidates. . . . But the American people are leery about large religious organizations, powerful churches or synagogue groups engaging in such activities -- again, not as a matter of law or doctrine, but because our innate wisdom and democratic instinct teaches us these things are dangerous."

His oratory, which would win him two spots in the top 100 American speeches compiled by the university research group American Rhetoric, gave him national recognition. But his repeated claims that he hadn't made a decision on whether to seek the presidency earned him the nickname "Hamlet on the Hudson."

Chose to stay in NY

In December 1991, Cuomo had two chartered planes ready to take him to New Hampshire as the deadline loomed to register for the that state's 1992 presidential primary. He even had a site chosen for his first presidential campaign speech.

As the national press waited anxiously, he emerged from his office in Albany at 5 p.m., as the New Hampshire deadline was passing, to say he chose to stay in New York after all to contend with the latest state budget crisis.

In 1994, Cuomo suffered a crushing defeat by a little-known Republican state legislator, George Pataki, who was commonly referred to as running on an "ABC" ballot line, short for "anyone but Cuomo." Pataki also promised to restore the death penalty, which played well at the polls at the time. Cuomo had repeatedly vetoed death penalty legislation and said some lawmakers who were privately opposed to capital punishment voted for it for political reasons, secure in the knowledge that the governor would strike it down.

Cuomo called capital punishment "a stain on our conscience" in 2001 in an opinion piece in the Daily News, while empathizing with the rage at murderers.

"I tremble at the thought of how I might react to a killer who took the life of someone in my own family," Cuomo wrote. "I know that I might not be able to suppress my anger or put down a desire for revenge, but I also know this society should strive for something better than what it feels at its weakest moments."

"Cuomo was always on the verge of becoming -- what? Something larger, something his personal qualities seemed to promise," political science Professor Bruce Miroff wrote at the time. "He did not even leave a strong mark on his state, like Governor [Herbert] Lehman or [Nelson] Rockefeller. He was always in the wings, forever the understudy to a greatness that passed him by."

Along the way, Cuomo nurtured the political acumen of his son, Andrew, a top adviser in Albany.

Mario Cuomo had given a young Democrat named Bill Clinton an important endorsement in his run for the presidency, and after Clinton's victory in 1992, Andrew Cuomo joined Clinton's White House and rose to housing secretary.

Back in New York, Andrew Cuomo was elected state attorney general in 2006 and governor in 2010. They were the first father and son to both serve as governor in New York State.

In November, they shared a podium in Manhattan, where Andrew held Mario's hand above their heads to celebrate Andrew's re-election victory.

The relationship between father and son had always been close. In addition to serving as a top gubernatorial adviser to his father, Andrew Cuomo cut his political teeth running Mario Cuomo's unsuccessful 1977 race for mayor of New York City.

Cuomo faced a six-way Democratic primary that included Koch and former congresswoman Bella Abzug. Koch won a runoff with Cuomo and beat him in the general election after Cuomo ran on the Liberal party line. During the runoff campaign, placards with the slogan "Vote for Cuomo, not the homo" appeared. The Cuomo campaign denied any involvement, but Koch never fully accepted that denial.

In retirement from politics, Mario Cuomo continued to write scholarly books, memoirs and articles on government and the wisdom of President Abraham Lincoln. Cuomo became known as one of America's liberal icons rather than a governor who had been weighed down by battles with Republicans and rivals in his own party back in Albany.

Cuomo often said he wished he had served in better economic times. His soaring rhetoric often was grounded by state deficits, an economy sunk in a national recession and the Rust Belt phenomena that weakened New York and dropped it from a global manufacturing power to a state that spends billions of dollars a year trying to retain or attract employers and stem an exodus of young, educated New Yorkers.

He directed much of his energy to trying to instill in young people a love for New York and faith in its future, but the exodus continued.

In the 20 years since he left office, he evolved from the hard-charging executive who rarely left Albany to a statesman -- a role that perhaps best suited his eloquence.

He returned to practicing law and his political commentary was sought by major news organizations. Sometimes he used humor as a skewer, such as when he described to reporters a legislative leader whom he didn't respect intellectually as a "handsome man."

But it all began in Forest Hills. Cuomo was teaching at St. John's when he was dispatched by Mayor Lindsay to tamp down a racially tinged housing fight in Queens in the 1970s. A large federal housing project for the poor was being planned for middle-class neighborhoods filled with whites who had moved from Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Cuomo negotiated a compromise in which the city scaled back its mammoth public housing plan. The resolution was widely seen as a political success forged by compromise, and a victory for race relations at a time when the nation saw few.

In his book "Forest Hills Diary: The Crisis of Low-Income Housing," Cuomo emphasized the need to take on what some consider insurmountable and intractable problems as the ones most worthy of effort.

"There will always be more problems than solutions; more to be done than has been done; more quests than conquests," Cuomo wrote. "The game is lost only when we stop trying."

With Yancey Roy, Ellen Yan and Paul LaRocco

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