It’s hard to believe that Donald Trump and Mario Cuomo were raised less than three miles apart in Queens, New York. Their ethics and values highlight diametrically opposed approaches to government, politics, and even personal principles. Cuomo, a three-term governor of New York, “wasn’t really a politician at all,” as his son, Andrew Cuomo, the current governor of New York, said in a powerful eulogy for his father when the latter passed away on New Year’s Day 2015: “At his core and at his best he was a philosopher and a poet, an advocate, a crusader.” Cuomo thrived on ideas and debating them; he deliberated, more than most politicians, before taking action. In contrast, Trump acts without thinking and is uncomfortable with facts and hostile when facing opinions other than his own. Oh, and there’s also something about their hands. Cuomo was known for his large ones, which he used to great effect on the basketball court.
Now, nearly a quarter-century after New York’s voters denied him a fourth term and voted him out of the governor’s mansion in 1994, Cuomo is the subject of a splendid new biography, American Cicero: Mario Cuomo and the Defense of American Liberalism, by Saladin Ambar, a political science professor at Rutgers University. Ambar traces the ethnic and religious values that guided Cuomo, the son of Italian immigrants who lived above the family grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens. Educated at St. John’s University and a graduate of St. John’s University Law School, Cuomo was deeply influenced by the values of service that guide the Vincentian religious order that governs St. John’s. For Ambar, Cuomo is “one of the most important political actors in the last quarter of the 20th century and may well be the most critically important Democratic politician of his time not to become president.” It’s an assessment that reflects the author’s admiration for his subject, although there are other heavyweight contenders for that crown as well, such as California Governor Jerry Brown, Senators Bill Bradley, Morris Udall and, of course, Al Gore, who sought the nomination in 1988 and ran unsuccessfully in 2000.
Traditionally, Democratic voters have sought candidates with the intellectual horsepower to lead the nation. With the notable exception of Richard Milhous Nixon, Republicans prefer to nominate military heroes or congenial personalities. Being called “smart” is a liability in Republican presidential contests. Just consider winning Republican candidates: Dwight W. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald J. Trump. By contrast, Mario M. Cuomo stood firmly in the Democratic tradition as a thinker, if anything perhaps too cerebral. But this was tempered by his immigrant, white Catholic, working-class pedigree. He was a politician who thrived on debate—who actually enjoyed making the effort to persuade voters with words, ideas, and ability to link his values to their daily lives. Unlike Trump, who mocks his opponents, Cuomo saw campaigning as a chance to argue and challenge the logic of an adversary. For Cuomo, debating was an essential component of life: words were tools to explore the goals of government, to define the role of faith, and to deploy as weapons when running for elective office.
Cuomo’s path into politics started in Queens County in 1966, when he was hired by a group of residents in the Italian neighborhood of Corona to fight a city proposal to acquire and demolish their homes to make way for low-income housing. After Cuomo successfully defended the homeowners, then-Mayor John Lindsay asked Cuomo to mediate an intense battle between the city government and civic groups in Forest Hills, where the Lindsay Administration was trying to build high-rise public housing on the site of an old golf driving range, amid a working-class Jewish neighborhood.
Cuomo’s success in forging a compromise—which reduced the height and density of the proposed development and designated a share of the housing for senior citizens—on this seemingly insoluble conflict brought him to the attention of Jimmy Breslin, the city’s premier newspaper columnist, who then brought Cuomo to the attention of all New Yorkers. In 1973, shortly after Cuomo helped low-income groups in Forest Hills move into a middle-class community, Donald Trump and the Trump Organization were sued by the Department of Justice for practicing racial discrimination in their housing projects in Brooklyn and Queens, which ultimately led to a consent decree with the federal government.
It took an Irish Congressman from Brooklyn, Hugh Carey, to recognize Cuomo’s potential for public office. As early as 1969, Carey had tried to convince Cuomo to enter the race for New York City comptroller, a powerful citywide elected office that oversees pensions and audits, on a ticket with Carey, who wanted to run for mayor. Ambar cites a Breslin passage from Cuomo’s 1974 book, Forest Hills Diary: “I got a genius nobody knows, Carey said. He’s a law professor at St. John’s. Brilliant sonofabitch. Mario Cuomo. I begged him to run with me. Nobody knows him. The first time they ever hear of him, they’ll be right there in his hands. But I just couldn’t talk him into running.” How very New York (at least of that time) that two seasoned Irish pros, Carey and Breslin, would bring an amateur from Queens like Cuomo to the forefront of New York politics.
Cuomo’s initial efforts to run for elective office were not successful. He lost to Ed Koch twice in 1977, in a mayoral primary run-off and then again in the general election (Cuomo’s name was on the Liberal Party line). Koch, a reformer from his years in Congress who sought to get to Gracie Mansion by actively supporting the death penalty, ran with the backing of the Brooklyn Democratic machine—and the endorsement of the New York Post, then in its first year under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership. Cuomo, however, refused to accommodate the party bosses who treated the municipal government as a jobs bank or to cave to the death penalty posse. In contrast, in 1989, Donald Trump took out full-page ads calling for the state to “Bring Back the Death Penalty” for the Central Park Five, who would later be exonerated in that infamous rape case.
Carey was elected governor in 1974 and appointed Cuomo secretary of state. It’s not a particularly powerful position—business licensing, and oddly enough regulating boxing and professional wrestling in the state. Even so, it was a position that Cuomo used to forge relationships across all 62 counties and that led to Cuomo’s eventual election as lieutenant governor in 1978, as well as his 1982 victory against then New York City Mayor Ed Koch in the Democratic primary for governor. Cuomo won a tough, come-from-behind victory over Koch, whose critique of upstate New York culture was not well-received north of Bear Mountain, a Hudson Valley peak that serves as a metaphorical border between downstate and upstate. And in the general election, he faced a well-funded Republican businessman, Lewis Lehrman. With the nation still in a recession and Reagan in the White House, Cuomo managed to wrap Reagan around Lehrman’s head—unifying the Democrats by pointing out that New Yorkers did not want Reaganomics in the Empire State.
Cuomo took office in January 1983, and his term opened with the New York version of a “welcome wagon”; during his first week as governor he had to deal with a prison uprising at the Ossining State Prison, also known as Sing Sing, a massive prison in an old industrial town on the Hudson River, just an hour from Manhattan. Remembering the riots at Attica state prison during Nelson Rockefeller’s governorship (leading to the death of prison guards and reckless killing of prisoners), Cuomo worked closely with his aides Michael Del Giudice and Tim Russert to forge a peaceful, nonviolent conclusion to what could have been a major catastrophe.
As governor, Cuomo attracted and relied on a talented team to govern a large state that consisted of rural counties where cows outnumber residents, as well thriving suburbs and the nation’s largest city. He recruited savvy professionals to run the state government. Governors of New York have always relied on young, ambitious individuals to manage the state budget and keep the bureaucrats in line. Cuomo, like his predecessor Carey, understood the need to attract and utilize talent—and he had a terrific team, including Russert, that handled the tough, often invisible job of running the state. As Andrew Cuomo candidly observed: “The truth is he didn’t love the day-to-day management of government; the tedium and absurdity of the bureaucracy was mind numbing for him. Nor did he appreciate the political back and forth and posturing with the legislature.”
Yet Cuomo used the powers of the office wisely, through his appointments, his intervention in major public conflicts, and his action on behalf of those with HIV/AIDS when the federal government refused to even acknowledge the illness. Cuomo was responding to the HIV crisis while Ronald Reagan was denying its existence. And is there any greater contrast than between Cuomo and Reagan, who as president, fired every remaining member of the government’s HIV/AIDS advisory council when six resigned in protest? At a time when crack cocaine was leading to a surge in crime, Cuomo built prisons but resisted popular pressure to adopt the death penalty, a position that ultimately contributed to his defeat in 1994.
Cuomo also broke new terrain with his appointments: Judith Kaye, the first female Chief Judge of the state’s highest court, as well as appointing both the first African American and Hispanic to be appointed to that court. And he recruited a new cadre of women who initially worked in state government and then built their own careers in politics: Congresswomen Louise Slaughter and Nita Lowey, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, and Suri Kasirer, a lobbyist who is the most powerful political professional in New York City today.
Cuomo had once had a short career as a minor leaguer for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization, and he brought the same style to politics that he did to sports. He loved to say: “You haven’t played a full nine innings if your uniform is clean at the end of the game.” Cuomo’s zest for combat extended well beyond the baseball diamond. It was the essence of his appetite for debate, his aggressiveness in challenging his adversaries, his joy in taking on tough public issues with his brains, his deep voice, and yes, his big hands.
Ambar analyzes Mario Cuomo’s two most celebrated speeches: his keynote address to the 1984 Democratic Presidential Convention in San Francisco, and his scholarly address at Notre Dame University, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” which he delivered at South Bend in September 1984.
Cuomo’s keynote address deserves to be read and reread today. As Ambar notes, he aimed his firepower at Ronald Reagan, who described the United States as “a shining city on a hill,” when he accepted the Republican Party nomination in 1980. Cuomo responded vehemently to Reagan’s rhetoric: “A shining city is perhaps all the President sees . . . But there is another city; there’s another part to the shining city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”
Cuomo also demolished the Reaganite logic of supply-side economics: “Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class . . . ” In one sentence Cuomo summarized the arrogance underlying the soon-to-be President’s agenda. Cuomo made a positive case for public policies that assisted those at the bottom of the economic ladder. By investing in and educating low-income groups, Cuomo stressed that we were doing more than lessening a burden on the greater society but adding to the economic productivity of the state and nation as a whole.
Cuomo spoke to the 1984 Democratic Convention with a moral message, as if he were an old-world prophet. He offered a vision of what the nation should be and what was politically necessary to achieve it. For Cuomo, politics was always more than cutting deals and political rallies. In fact, Cuomo treated his keynote speech as a unique opportunity to ridicule Republicans, mobilize the faithful, and persuade the bystanders. The speech instantly catapulted him into the ranks of future presidential contenders.
Today, Twitter and Instagram may have superseded the political speech by creating a new generation of politicians and voters who communicate with images and buzzwords that can be conveyed in less than 30 seconds. Or, perhaps, we just need a new generation of politicians who can speak in sentences, not slogans. Politics, for Cuomo, meant talking to and educating the population. He loved to speak directly to his opponents as well as to voters. He believed that ideas were real, that voters could be convinced to help their neighbors, and that politics was the arena where you could disagree with your opponents yet still search for points of convergence.
Cuomo was a self-consciously religious man; he frequently cited the Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and the ancient rabbinical concept, Tikkun Olam, that the purpose of life is to “repair the world.” And as a Catholic politician, Cuomo encountered sometimes intense opposition from Catholic clergy who favored pro-life policies.
In New York City, the Irish, who once dominated political life, have been in demographic decline for decades. But the Irish still control the Archdiocese of New York, whose home at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, located on Fifth Avenue opposite Rockefeller Center, is perhaps the most valuable real estate in the city. Soon after being named the archbishop of the New York Archdiocese in 1984, John J. O’Connor, who had previously been the archbishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, criticized Catholic politicians—including Cuomo—when he said: “I don’t see how a Catholic in good conscience . . . can vote for a candidate who explicitly supports abortion.” Ambar insightfully observes that “Cuomo saw the battle over faith in the public arena—particularly the question of abortion—as part of a larger struggle over the appropriation of religious values by the Republican Party and conservatives.”
Following Cuomo’s widely praised keynote address at the San Francisco convention, O’Connor realized New York was not Scranton and retreated from battle with Cuomo. But Cuomo, in turn, recognized that it was essential to explain publicly how an elected Roman Catholic governor can follow the Constitution as well as the religious values of his Church. And what better place to focus on religion and politics that at Notre Dame University, the leading Catholic university in the nation? Cuomo, simply by going to South Bend and speaking for more than an hour to scholars, priests, and students proved that he was fearless. He took on the lion in the lion’s lair.
The key to the Notre Dame speech is not in the theology but in Cuomo’s belief that he could and should convey to students and scholars of religion how a Catholic politician can be faithful while adhering to the principles of the Constitution. He asserted: “A Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful. . . . I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, as a Protestant or non-believer, or as anything else you choose.”
Cuomo’s decision to seek a fourth term was always questionable. After 12 years as governor, voters were ready for a change. George Pataki, an unknown state legislator, was the hand-picked candidate of then Seator Alphonse D’Amato. Pataki’s campaign targeted the suburban voters who felt Cuomo had lost touch with them as he had grown in national stature. Pataki beat him, on the same night of Newt Gingrich’s 54-seat win in the U.S. House of Representatives, by a little more than three percentages points. After leaving Albany, Cuomo practiced law in Manhattan and remained active in efforts to fight the death penalty across the nation. For the first time in his life, he had sufficient time and energy to devote to his grandchildren. But as he confided to his longtime adviser, John Marino, he “missed the chance to do good.”
Saladin Ambar’s biography of Mario Cuomo is a reminder that Democratic politicians need not be one-dimensional characters and that we should not seek one-issue politicians. The challenges facing the United States require thoughtful and intelligent policies, not quick fixes or fake solutions. We cannot and should not try to recreate the heroes of the past, but we can and must create a new generation of leaders who realize, as Cuomo did, that winning and holding office means directly engaging one’s opponent by making a compelling case for your beliefs and values.
During the past 37 years, three former governors have held the Presidency for 24 years: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George Walker Bush. Leading a state government entails responsibility for basic, unglamorous tasks: overseeing public education, managing criminal justice systems, raising and spending taxpayer funds.
Cuomo was not a conventional politician: he was a debater, not a doer, a man of faith and introspection, not television and Twitter. Though he lacked the drive to pursue the presidency, his belief in government’s responsibility and capacity to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder make his ideas and speeches more relevant today than when he was alive. He provides a terrific starting point for Democratic candidates at all levels of government in the twenty-first century.