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Editorial: Mario Cuomo, poet and pragmatist

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gestures while delivering

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gestures while delivering the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention Monday, July 22, 1984 in San Francisco's Moscone Center. Credit: AP

Mario M. Cuomo was an eloquent and strong advocate for a society that embraced and cared for all its members. With his passing on New Year's Day at age 82, the state and the nation have lost a man of conscience and an extraordinary, devoted public servant.

During his three terms as governor of New York, Cuomo practiced what he called "progressive pragmatism." His politics were smart, disciplined and compassionate. He knew intuitively that as governor he needed to enlist the help of all New Yorkers to create a society in which all could prosper, one where upward mobility was not limited to the few. And Cuomo always took care not to pit the interests of the poor against those of the middle class and the affluent.

Cuomo was raised in South Jamaica, Queens, the son of Italian immigrants who ran a grocery store. The governor who'd rouse a political convention, debate brilliantly and convey the nuance and subtleties of complex issues did not learn English until he started public school. As a child, he saw and experienced how crucial public services, from good schools and decent housing to accessible and affordable health care, could improve the lives and the spirit of struggling families.

He famously said, you "campaign in poetry and govern in prose." Government had to be effective and efficient. Cuomo balanced 12 state budgets and ably steered the state through two harsh and ugly recessions. He fought successfully to prevent the Reagan administration from eliminating the tax deduction for state and local taxes. He worked hard to create jobs and stimulate economic development.

But the poetry that people remember, and which still resonates, was inspired by deeply felt ideas and a moral core.

Cuomo stood against the death penalty at a time when so many candidates and officials shrilly pandered and pushed for more executions. The country slowly is coming around to his viewpoint.

In a 1984 speech at Notre Dame University, Cuomo defended his decision not to fight against abortion rights. In his address, he said he was an "old-fashioned Catholic who sins, regrets, struggles, worries, gets confused, and most of the time feels better after confession." But then he posed a rhetorical question: "I accept the church's teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do?"

Two months earlier, at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, Cuomo electrified the hall — and millions of Americans watching on television — with his "Tale of Two Cities" speech:

"We believe in only the government we need — but we insist on all the government we need . . . We believe in a government strong enough to use the words 'love' and 'compassion' and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into political realities."

People also remember his inscrutability. In December 1991, with two planes waiting on the tarmac to take the governor and his entourage to New Hampshire for a last-minute filing in the next year's presidential primary, Cuomo abruptly said he wouldn't run. His explanation was that he needed to stay home and balance the state budget.

And former President Bill Clinton has confirmed that he offered Cuomo a Supreme Court seat in 1993 but that Cuomo "was the first man in history" to turn down the position. We wish he hadn't for the sake of our national jurisprudence and what could have been a fascinating intellectual interplay with his ideological opposite, Justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow Catholic Italian-American who also grew up in Queens.

So does a legacy of poetry matter?

It's a fair question. But in the case of Mario Cuomo, it does — especially when the poetry is mixed with practical political wisdom and a keen understanding of New Yorkers and their communities.

In 1972 Mayor John Lindsay asked Cuomo — then practicing law — to mediate a bitter housing dispute in Forest Hills. The city wanted to build 840 units of low-income housing in three 24-story towers in the white, middle-class neighborhood.

The dispute was perceived as racial, and Forest Hills residents angrily fought the idea. Cuomo was less certain — given a similar battle over low-income housing then raging in Baisley Park, a majority black middle-class neighborhood in South Jamaica.

"The point I drew . . . is that there is something beyond color here," Cuomo said. "It's economic class and distinction." He hammered out a successful compromise for Forest Hills — three 12-story buildings with some units reserved for elderly residents. Settling the controversy was the start of his political career.

Later, as the Reagan revolution flourished, Cuomo rallied the spirits of beleaguered Democrats nationally by constantly reminding them of the timelessness and worth of their core values. He was a leading voice of inclusion in a nation fast choosing up sides. And he showed that it was not just possible — but politically advisable — to crusade for the have-nots in our society while also celebrating and abetting the strength of the middle class.

Other governors left more tangible records. Nelson Rockefeller created the state university system. Hugh Carey saved the City of New York from the brink of bankruptcy.

But in a time of social confusion, financial distress and public angst, Cuomo provided the state and the nation with a strong moral compass. Over and over again, his simple yet powerful words reminded us of who we are as a nation and where we should be going.