ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — With former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s death, liberals have lost one of their last, best champions, a proud populist who represented an older breed of Democrat.
During his three terms as governor, the former minor league baseball player from Queens championed the working class, reproached Ronald Reagan and flirted — repeatedly — with a run for the White House. In his 1984 address at the Democratic National Convention, he talked of a nation of haves and have-nots, of a yawning disconnect between rich and poor largely ignored by Reagan.
“A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well,” he said. “Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.'”
The 82-year-old Cuomo died Thursday at his home in Manhattan of natural causes from heart failure just hours after his son Andrew began his second term as New York’s chief executive. Services are planned for Tuesday morning at a Manhattan church.
Mario Cuomo’s progressive legacy is reflected today by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose own 2013 campaign kickoff speech recycled the “Tale of Two Cities” image.
By contrast, Andrew Cuomo epitomizes the mainstream Democratic Party’s recent tendency toward centrism. While Cuomo is socially liberal on gun control and abortion, he’s seen as more fiscally conservative, willing to battle teachers unions and supportive of business friendly tax cuts.
The elder Cuomo came from an older, more liberal strand of Democratic politics that included Franklin Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson. Like them, Cuomo combined public eloquence with an intellectual rigor. Unlike those two, however, he never ran for president, despite pleas to do so in 1988 and 1992.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who also spoke at the 1984 convention, said Cuomo’s supporters “literally begged him to run.” Jackson said Cuomo’s brand of outspoken liberalism is needed now that “too few have too much and too many have nothing.”
“He had room for everybody. There’s so much polarization these days,” Jackson said. “He was a big tent visionary.”
Even those who disagreed with his policies respected Cuomo’s passion and his rise as the son of Italian immigrants to the pinnacle of American politics. Republican state Senate Leader Dean Skelos called him “one of the great orators of our time.”
In a twist, Cuomo’s decision not to seek the presidency in 1992 cleared the way for Bill Clinton, who steered the Democratic Party toward the center. Clinton also tapped Andrew Cuomo — a top adviser to his father — as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
While Mario Cuomo represented “what Democrats used to be, what Democrats were before the Clintons came on the scene,” Andrew Cuomo shows the party’s evolution since then, said Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University. But Greer said the elder Cuomo’s liberal legacy still resonates through his son.
“The son is always different from the father. We saw that with the Bushes, with the Romneys,” she said. “But you can’t be with a man like Mario Cuomo for 20 years without having the core essence of who he is rub off on you.”
Mario Cuomo famously said “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose” and if he was the orator, his son is the operator, the one who passes state budgets on time and — as when he resolved a threatened Long Island Rail Road strike last year — makes trains run on schedule.
“Andrew Cuomo is more the prose guy,” said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio, who taught a course several years ago alongside Mario Cuomo. “Mario was transformational. Andrew doesn’t seek to be transformational. He’s transactional.”
In a 1992 interview with The Associated Press, Cuomo said his greatest accomplishments included restructuring the state police and courts, fixing highways and passing the nation’s first seatbelt law. He did not include another legacy: an unprecedented expansion of the state prison system.
“Will I be remembered for all of that? I don’t know,” he said at the time. “What I would like them to say, what I would like to have written on my tombstone: ‘He tried.’ That, I think, is the maximum we can do.”