Mario Cuomo, who served as governor of New York from 1983 to 1994 and passed on running for president in 1988 and 1992 despite intense pressure from the Democratic Party, died today at the age of 82, his son CNN host Chris Cuomo confirmed to the network.
Earlier in the day Mario Cuomo had missed the inauguration of his son Andrew Cuomo for his own second term as New York governor; in his speech, the younger Cuomo cited his father's health issues as the cause of his absence:
"My father is not with us today. We had hoped that he was going to be able to come; he is at home and he is not well enough to come. We spent last night with him, changed the tradition a little bit. We weren't in Albany last night; we stayed at my father's house to ring in the New Year with him. I went through the speech with him. He said it was good, especially for a second-termer. See, my father is a third-termer. But he sends his regards to all of you. He couldn't be here physically today, my father. But my father is in this room. He is in the heart and mind of every person who is here. He is here and he is here, and his inspiration and his legacy and his experience is what has brought this state to this point. So let's give him a round of applause."
Cuomo died hours later from heart failure at his Manhattan home with his family by his side, according to a statement released by the Cuomos. He had spent time in the hospital in early December.
The New York Times described Cuomo as a liberal activist whose ambitions for the state were thwarted by the period's economic troubles, but said his influence extended past those limits.
"Mr. Cuomo burst beyond the state's boundaries to personify the liberal wing of his national party and become a source of unending fascination and, ultimately, frustration for Democrats, whose leaders twice pressed him to run for president, in 1988 and 1992, to no avail."
He also pursued a seat on the Supreme Court during Bill Clinton's first term in office, but ultimately decided against it, the Times reports, and pursued a fourth term as New York governor in 1994 — against the advice of advisers — only to lose to George E. Pataki.
Two images of the governor leave a lasting impact, the Times reported:
"In the end, two images of Mr. Cuomo endure. The first is of him, as governor, commanding the lectern at the 1984 Democratic convention, stilling a sea of delegates with his oratory. The second is of two chartered airplanes on the tarmac at the Albany airport in December 1992, waiting to fly him to New Hampshire to pay the $1,000 filing fee that would put his name on the state's Democratic primary ballot for president.
"Mr. Cuomo, whose tortuous deliberations over whether to seek the White House had led pundits to call him 'Hamlet on the Hudson,' put the decision off until 90 minutes before the 5 p.m. filing deadline. Then he emerged from the Executive Mansion to announce to a news conference at the Capitol that he would not run. The demands of negotiating a stalled state budget, he said, prevented him entering the race.
" 'It seems to me I cannot turn my attention to New Hampshire while this threat hangs over the head of the New Yorkers that I've sworn to put first,' he said."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praised Cuomo's "soaring oratory" and "painstaking coalition-building," and said he was "a colossal political mind and represented the very best of public service; he leaves an indelible legacy on the state he loved."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised him as a role model for future generations of Italian-Americans — he was the first to lead New York — who proved that "anything was possible through hard work and education."
President Obama said in a statement that "Mario paired his faith in God and faith in America to live a life of public service — and we are all better for it," and that his upbringing "taught him that as Americans, we are bound together as one people, and our country's success rests on the success of all of us, not just a fortunate few."
Cuomo's roots as the son of poor Italian immigrants played into his popularity, reports the Albany Times Union.
"The arc of Cuomo's life — growing up above his parents' humble corner grocery store in a multi-ethnic Queens neighborhood, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a law degree and entering public service after winning a fight for a public housing project in Queens — served as a potent symbol of the American Dream."
Cuomo rose to national prominence based on his speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, the Times Union reports, a rebuttal to President Reagan's famous "Shining City on a Hill" speech.
"Ten days ago, President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn't understand that fear. He said, 'Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.' And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill.
"But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. 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. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining the 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."
He's survived by Matilda Raffa Cuomo, his wife of 60 years, as well as five children and 14 grandchildren, the family said in a statement.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Some sad news tonight - former New York Governor Mario Cuomo has died. He was 82. He was elected to three terms and became a national figure, holding up the liberal Democratic tradition at a time when Rep. Ronald Reagan was president. He declined to run for president and refused to be nominated for the Supreme Court. To talk with us about the governor is our political editor Ron Elving. Hi.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hi, LuLu. Good to be with you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ron, you covered a speech Cuomo gave in 1984 that really defined him on the national stage. We're going to hear a bit of that in a moment, but first, set it up for us.
ELVING: This was in San Francisco in 1984. Walter Mondale was actually getting the nomination. But after the speech that Mario Cuomo gave on the first night, if the delegates could have suddenly swung the nomination to him by acclimation, in the old style of the 19th century, that might have happened. It was an enormously impactful speech. And everyone was not only hanging on his words for a solid hour, but many people were openly weeping at points in the speech. And it was - it was difficult to overstate the degree to which he held that entire Yerba Buena Center there in San Francisco in 1984 in the palm of his hand for 60 minutes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's hear a little bit of that speech now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MARIO CUOMO: In many ways, we are a shining city on a hill. But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. 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. But there's 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That feels very relevant to today.
ELVING: You know, it's true. The issue of income and equality, the issue of whether or not everyone in the United States is sharing in the prosperity that some are enjoying - that issue is an current as it could be 30 years later.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was he like as governor of New York?
ELVING: As governor of New York, perhaps it would surprise many people to learn the degree to which he governed to the center. Mario Cuomo, when he was in office, was more of a tax-cutter, often times - a budget-balancer, as all governors must be. He built a number of prisons, among other things. And he worked very hard to deal with some of the animosities between different groups, not only within the city of New York, but between the city of New York and the rest of the state.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us about the man other than the politician.
ELVING: He was born in Queens. His parents were Italian immigrants. He was an excellent baseball player - in fact, good enough that he was drafted the Pittsburgh Pirates and was making his way up in their organization when he was hit by a pitch in the head in an era before everyone wore a helmet. And it was such a severe injury that it basically ended his baseball career.
At that point, he decided to go back to college at St. John's in New York and on to the law school there at St. John's, where he graduated first in his class in 1956, but could scarcely even get an interview in the most distinguished, most prestigious law firms in New York City, which, at that time, were not that interested in graduates of his school or, perhaps, as he always felt, people with his ethnicity.
So he went on to practice in a smaller firm and, very soon, got involved in Democratic politics and, in the 1970s, was running for office and ran for mayor against Ed Koch. Didn't win that particular race, but won his first nomination for governor running against Ed Koch in 1982, then went on to be elected against Lew Lehrman that fall in 1982 - the first of three terms.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ron Elving, our political editor, thank you very much for joining us.
ELVING: Thank you, LuLu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: News tonight that former New York Governor Mario Cuomo has died. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.