Mario Cuomo stands as a giant and trailblazer in state politics, the labor movement and liberal politics, fans and critics alike said Thursday, a statesman so skilled that one national leader recalled feeling like he was dealing with a chess master.
"Mario Cuomo was a legendary figure in New York politics who chose public service for all the right reasons," said State Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). "He could have run for president or been appointed to the Supreme Court, but he chose to stay and serve the people of New York."
Cuomo tangled with some of the best speakers and most powerful opponents, but Thursday, hours after his son Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivered his second inaugural address, they rained applause on the Queens-born man who helped push through environmental controls, child seat-belt laws and a prescription drug program for seniors decades before the federal government's plan.
Long Island leaders from both parties, retired political giants and labor leaders said he rarely became petty, always saw the big picture and never lost sight of his working-class background.
He fought a long battle to carve out one of the Island's most famous open space programs when he helped enact the Pine Barrens Protection Act of 1993, which preserved 100,000 acres to protect water and habitat, said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. "He will be forever remembered for that alone."
Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a Long Island Republican who frequently sparred with the governor, said it was a "privilege" to have worked with Cuomo. "Despite our party differences, we were very much alike," D'Amato said. "Like myself, he was the proud descendant of Italian immigrants and never forgot his roots."
Cuomo's popularity helped push the Democratic Party into the White House, said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem): "We were able to elect President Bill Clinton into office after more than a decade of Republican control of the White House."
"Tonight, New York has lost a giant. Mario Cuomo was a man of unwavering principle who possessed a compassion for humankind that was without equal. He established the gold standard in New York State for how public servants should act, and set an example that the rest of us continue to aspire to today," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
He raised a son who became a governor in his father's style, Skelos said.
"Andrew just idolized his father, respected him as a parent and for his intellectual abilities and for his ability to bring people together," he said. "Every so often, when we're sitting and discussing legislation, I get some flashbacks to his dad in terms of mannerisms and challenging your intellect on legislation."
As a junior senator, Skelos worked with Gov. Mario Cuomo on a drug program for seniors, decades before the federal Medicare prescription plan and was impressed by how he worked. "If you were going to negotiate legislation with him, he was always totally prepared and you had to be prepared as well because he challenged you in a positive way," Skelos said.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said in a statement: "Mario Cuomo was a giant of New York government and politics. As much as anyone, he understood and appreciated the mosaic that was New York. All who knew Mario Cuomo were better for it. My thoughts and prayers are with the Cuomo family. RIP."
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, said the former governor was a role model who left the state and nation a better place: "He was a man of passion, principle and dedication who inspired so many New Yorkers to pursue public service, including me."
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, offered his condolences, saying: "Mario Cuomo had much to be proud of, but I'm certain, he was most proud to know that his son, Andrew Cuomo, was sworn in for a second term as New York State governor today."
One man famous for his own skills in speaking and civil rights battles noted a couple of ironies in praising Cuomo. "Even when we would engage in debate, I felt he was playing chess while I was playing checkers," the Rev. Al Sharpton said. "It seems ironic he died on his son's inauguration address day. He would have wanted to pass the torch on a day that we were all paying attention."
With Yancey Roy, Michael Gormley, John Asbury and Paul LaRocco