The following appears in the January 16-22, 2015 issue of the Long Island Business News:
I first met Mario Cuomo in 1970 when I was a college freshman. He was introduced to me by his good friend and former law school classmate Republican Assemblyman Jack Gallagher. Moments after meeting him, I realized Cuomo was a sharp, fast-talking guy.
My first impressions were confirmed a year later when I sneaked into a law class he taught at St. John’s University. Using the Socratic method, Prof. Cuomo went for his students’ jugulars. He made John Houseman’s character in the movie “The Paper Chase” look like a pushover.
During his unsuccessful run for mayor in 1977, I couldn’t help but admire the tenacious Cuomo, even as I campaigned for his Conservative Party opponent. Not since conservative William F. Buckley Jr. ran for mayor in 1965 had voters been exposed to such an articulate debater.
Five years later, Cuomo proved his mettle when he went on to beat Mayor Edward Koch in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and then defeat my candidate, Lew Lehrman.
As New York’s chief executive, his son rightly described him as a “pragmatic progressive.” In the 1980s, New York was not dark blue. A U.S. senator and the state comptroller were Republicans and the state Senate was solidly in GOP hands. Cuomo promoted as best he could his leftist ideology and stuck to his guns on the issue that cost him the gubernatorial election in 1994: his opposition to the death penalty.
Cuomo’s death on January 1 brought out many of the old-time New York lefties, who praised him as a liberal icon. What hypocrisy. Back in 1994, they were knocking Cuomo for not measuring up to the words of “The Speech” he delivered at the 1984 Democratic National Convention defending liberal ideals.
Dr. Donna Shalala, former president of City University’s Hunter College, was quoted by The New York Times describing Cuomo “as a powerful and articulate spokesman for social and political issues,” yet when it came to implementing those views, she concluded, “I’m confused by Cuomo.” (This is the same Shalala, who as Clinton’s Secretary of Human Services sat by silently when he declared the “era of big government was over.”)
The Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus groused about Cuomo’s “lack of urgency” when it came to minority and poverty issues.
Feminists were also unhappy. Irene Natividad, chairperson of the National Women’s Political Caucus, complained: “There’s no getting around the fact that he could do more [for women].”
As Cuomo prepared to run for a fourth term, his standing with the left was described by Jacob Weisberg in New York magazine: “There is a deep sense of weariness with Cuomo, a feeling of anger, even betrayal.”
Interesting, isn’t it? Particularly considering that during Cuomo’s tenure, state spending ballooned 123 percent, while the compounded inflation rate was 65 percent. Medicaid spending was costing taxpayers $16.2 billion annually by 1994 and represented 18.4 percent of the total national Medicaid spending, even though New York included only 10 percent of the nation’s Medicaid recipients. In addition, outstanding state and authority debt during the Cuomo years went up 107 percent from $30 billion to $62 billion.
That record is not a conservative one. And criticism Cuomo received proves liberals are never happy. One can never spend enough on his agenda to please them.
Although Cuomo and I were on opposite sides of the political divide, I like to think we were friends. After he left office we would chat from time to time over breakfast or over the phone. When I was executive director of the Port Authority, I sought his advice on a number of occasions. I always respected that he was a fighting liberal unafraid of verbal clashes with people, like me, who disagreed.
Mario Matthew Cuomo – Requiescat In Pace.