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To Long Islanders, Mario Cuomo defined opposition to Shoreham nuclear plant

New York State Gov. Mario Cuomo tours the

New York State Gov. Mario Cuomo tours the decommissioned Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on June 28, 1990; the plant as seen from Creek Road in Shoreham on July 3, 2012. Credit: Newsday / Don Jacobsen; Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

One accomplishment in Gov. Mario Cuomo's three terms eclipsed all others when it came to impact on Long Island:

Closing the controversial Shoreham nuclear power plant.

"Shoreham," as a word, came to identify not only the community in north Brookhaven but also the decades-long saga of the facility that was to operate there.

And while Cuomo's record in Suffolk and Nassau counties also included initiatives such as increased state aid for both home buyers and defense firms, his work with Shoreham is what many local residents will most remember him for.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it appeared that grassroots opposition to Shoreham would come to nothing. The Long Island Lighting Co. already had spent $1 billion on the project and many leaders backed its completion.

But when Cuomo, who died Thursday at age 82, took office in 1983, Suffolk County lawmakers had just concluded that there would be no safe way to evacuate residents in the event of a nuclear incident. The new governor took up their cause.

"I knew all about Long Island and I knew you couldn't get home from the beach on a Saturday or Sunday without great difficulty," Cuomo told Newsday in 2009, on the 30th anniversary of a landmark protest against the plant. "And what occurred to me is, 'What happens if, God forbid, there's an episode [at Shoreham] and people have to run out of the area?' "

During Cuomo's first term, public sentiment against the plant intensified. After LILCO came under fire for its slow response in restoring electricity after Hurricane Gloria in 1985 -- and after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine stoked fears of a Long Island catastrophe -- Cuomo, a Democrat, worked to find a way to stop the plant while also satisfying the utility that had sunk so much money into it.

State lawmakers created the Long Island Power Authority to study a public takeover of LILCO that would close Shoreham. Negotiations over three years, the bulk of Cuomo's second term, led to a deal for LILCO shareholders to sell the already licensed power plant to the state for $1 so it could be decommissioned, in exchange for 10 years of rate increases.

By 1998, LIPA had issued $7 billion in debt tied to Shoreham in an effort to buy out LILCO shareholders and complete the takeover of the private utility. A large portion of that debt is still on the books, affecting ratepayers today.

"Cuomo was the guy who shut Shoreham down and created a framework for Long Island to move forward without it," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "It was costly, but the only workable solution."

Cuomo had a different take in the 2009 interview.

"In the end, it was the economics that stopped it," he said. "I didn't stop it."


A monumental decision

Patrick Halpin, a Democrat who served as Suffolk County executive from 1988 to 1991, said Cuomo's work on Shoreham was "one of the most monumental decisions affecting Long Island, then and now."

Halpin recalled a fundraiser for his first, ultimately unsuccessful, run for county executive in 1983. Then a young state assemblyman, Halpin said the governor was to be the keynote speaker at the event, providing a much-needed endorsement.

About 1,000 power plant opponents were outside the Hauppauge catering hall, and they got to Cuomo first. He stayed outside and listened to them.

"Instead of coming in to endorse me, Mario Cuomo spent the evening talking to the protesters outside. It was vintage Mario; he was always about the grassroots," said Halpin, noting Cuomo's political start as an advocate for low-income housing in Queens. "He really engaged with that movement."

Cuomo's 12 years in office also affected Long Island in other ways.

His administration sought to address the Island's housing shortage with hefty subsidies for working-class, first-time home buyers and with money to shelter the newly homeless. He pumped money into regional defense companies to stem the tide of lost jobs, and strongly backed efforts to adopt strict autoemission standards.

In 1994, a little-known Republican state legislator, George Pataki, upset Cuomo on a campaign based on tax cuts and support for bringing back the state death penalty, which Cuomo strongly opposed. Pataki received a boost when he was endorsed by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a Nassau County Republican who generally had a good relationship with Cuomo.

"Despite our party differences, we were very much alike," D'Amato said in a statement Thursday night. "Like myself, he was the proud descendant of Italian immigrants and never forgot his roots. He was a soaring intellect and a tremendous New Yorker, and it was my privilege to work with him."

Pataki defeated Cuomo by fewer than 4 percentage points -- 120,000 votes statewide, winning Nassau and Suffolk counties by a total of 112,000 votes.

"Long Island cost him his fourth term," Levy said of Cuomo. "It was a return to the region's Republican roots."

Political experts have argued that Cuomo's anti-death penalty stance was deeply unpopular on Long Island, where a large segment of voters have strong law enforcement roots. Many believed that had he simply supported a limited death penalty -- for those who killed police officers -- he would have performed better.

But Halpin said it wasn't Cuomo's style to go against his beliefs for political purposes. He recalled that Cuomo's brother, Frank, who lived in Halpin's Assembly district, once told him that he argued with his brother to take a split position.


A man of principle

"He said Mario just shook his head and said, 'I can't. A life is a life,' " Halpin recalled. "Mario Cuomo will go down as an incredibly principled person."

Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello, who dealt with Cuomo as party leader and as Hempstead's town supervisor, said that while he disagreed with some of the governor's political stances, "I respect the way he handled himself and I respect the decisions he made.

"He was a strong man and that's what the state needed," Mondello said.

Mondello recalled that Cuomo sometimes called him early in the morning after reading about a local issue that had caught his attention. After asking about family, Cuomo would invariably make his opinion known.

"It was usually something he didn't like, so he would start to get angry," Mondello recalled. "And he would get angrier and angrier until it would get to a crescendo -- and then he would just hang up the phone."

But Mondello said he liked that Cuomo "never let things fester."

After one such call, Mondello and Cuomo saw each other outside an event at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury. Mondello said Cuomo greeted him warmly by "putting his arm around my shoulders and saying, 'Hey, Joe. You really like this business, don't you?' "

"I said, 'Yes, governor, I do,' " Mondello recalled, "and we'd go walking inside together."

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