When the 52nd governor of New York began public school he couldn’t speak English. Meanwhile, Mario Cuomo’s father slowly worked his way from ditch digger to storeowner with his wife in South Jamaica. It was a struggle for his parents who left their native Italy to pursue a better life for their family in the 1920s. Six decades later, he would speak of their trials as Gov. Cuomo when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
It was 1983 that marked the start of Cuomo’s 12-year tenure, the longest for a Democrat. He balanced 12 consecutive budgets, though many were late, reduced state income taxes by 20 percent and enacted the nation’s first seat belt law credited with reducing fatalities. Though seen by many as a clear choice for the presidential nomination, it never was for Cuomo. To run on a platform that said he could balance the nation’s budget while his own state was still without one would be a politically “foolish” move, as he said in a 1998 New York Magazine article.
With a passion for law, Cuomo didn’t intend to be a career politician but saw it as a means to get things done. Upon graduating St. John’s University in 1956, he found work as a trial lawyer and within weeks, was offered a raise since he kept winning his cases. But, as a 1990 article by The Atlantic said, Cuomo wasn’t satisfied.
“‘Fighting politicians, he learned that government had a lot of power, his friend Fabian Palomino says. ‘It could do a little bit of good.’”
Aiding the Corona Fighting 69, a group of homeowners who wanted to stop a plan to demolish their homes for a new high school, put him on the political radar in 1972.
By 1974, he was popular enough to receive backing by the Democratic Party to run for lieutenant governor. Although he lost, Gov. Hugh Carey appointed him as secretary of state.
In the 1982 primary, Cuomo faced Ed Koch, who had defeated him in the 1977 primary runoff for mayor. While Cuomo’s opposition to the death penalty may have been unpopular before, this time voters sided with it, aiding in his victory. Luck was also a factor as the Milwaukee Sentinel noted that Koch had alienated many upstate voters with negative remarks about rural life.
Two years later, Cuomo’s keynote address focused on the theme of a “tale of two cities,” as he cited the hardships and lessons he learned about perseverance from people like his parents.
“And that they were able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children go from behind their little grocery store in South Jamaica on the other side of the tracks where he was born, to occupy the highest seat in the greatest state of the greatest nation in the only world we know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process,” he said.
After declining a spot on the Supreme Court and losing a bid for a fourth term, Cuomo returned to practicing law. His son, Andrew, one of five children he had with Matilda, his wife of 50 years, became New York’s 56th governor.