BY JORDAN GIBBONS
Former Governor Mario Cuomo died of natural causes due to heart failure on Jan. 1 in his Manhattan home at the age of 82, hours after his son Andrew Cuomo was inaugurated for his second term as governor.
The Holliswood and South Jamaica native served as governor from 1983 to 1994 and was known for his inspirational speeches and being a bastion of progressive values.
District Attorney Richard Brown said he would be forever grateful to Cuomo for appointing him twice as a Justice of the Appellate Division and his current position as Queens’ DA.
“He was a great friend and advisor who greatly influenced my life and the lives of a generation of young lawyers,” Brown said in a statement. “A son of Queens, he will be missed by all for his wise counsel, heartfelt compassion for the downtrodden, fierce advocacy for justice and inspiring oratory.”
Cuomo became known as a defender of the downtrodden early in his career as an attorney in Queens. In the late 1960s, he represented “The Corona Fighting 69”, a group of 69 homeowners who were in danger of being displaced by the City’s plan to build a new high school. The group successfully averted the demolition of all but 22 of the 69 homes.
He also represented another Queens residents group, the Kew Gardens-Forest Hills Committee on Urban Scale, who opposed Samuel J. LeFrak’s housing proposal adjacent to Willow Lake. The spotlight shined even brighter on him in 1972 when Mayor John Lindsay appointed him to conduct an inquiry and mediate a dispute over low-income public housing slated for the upper-middle class neighborhood of Forest Hills.
Cuomo worked closely with former Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin in Queens, years before they both became prominent political figures in New York. Councilman Mark Weprin said that Cuomo used to blame his father for getting him into politics.
“When other families went on vacation, we spent time running Mario Cuomo’s campaign,” Weprin said. “He never forgot his Queens roots. He would use it as a weapon. He never embraced the trappings of being in power. He was a humble man in a very important position.”
During a time when liberal views were disparaged, Cuomo strongly opposed the policies of Ronald Reagan, particularly during his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, which Weprin said was one of the most prideful moments of his life since the speech made a Queens native one of the most important political figures in the country.
His speech brought him to national attention and was considered a frontrunner to get the Democratic nomination for President in 1988 and 1992. He came close to filing for candidacy in 1991, but since he could not come to agreement with Republicans in the New York State Legislature on the budget, he declined running, because he said that he swore to put New Yorkers first.
Borough President Melinda Katz credited Cuomo with devoting his life to public service and offered condolences to his family on behalf of the Borough.
“As governor, he used his considerable intelligence and leadership to advance an agenda to help all New Yorkers live better, more prosperous lives,” she said in a statement. “Governor Cuomo was an inspiration to me and to many borough residents who entered public service in the hope of following his example and building on his legacy of achievement.”
While New York was experiencing an era filled with crime in the 1980s and early 1990s, Cuomo stood by his opposition to the death penalty despite the unpopular opinion. He vetoed several bills that would have re-established capital punishment in the State.
Cuomo, a Roman Catholic, also strongly believed that the State did not have a right to ban abortion, even though he was personally opposed to it. In a speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1984, he pronounced that there can be different approaches to abortion besides absolute prohibition and unyielding adherence. Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, former Archbishop of New York, considered excommunicating him after the speech.
Considering he knew his father the best, Gov. Andrew Cuomo provided the eulogy at the funeral, which covered his father’s background, his biggest speeches and even his basketball prowess.
“At his core, he was a philosopher. He was a poet. He was an advocate. He was a crusader. Mario Cuomo was the keynote speaker for our better angels,” he said.
He finished the eulogy by promising to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“We know what we have to do and we will do it. We will make this State a better State and we will do it together,” he said. “On that, you have my word as your son.”
Reach Reporter Jordan Gibbons at (718)357-7400, Ext. 123, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jgibbons2.