New York

Mario Cuomo's 'Meager Legacy' in New York and National Politics

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Three-term governor of New York Mario Cuomo has died at the age of 82. He served from 1983 through 1994 and it's harsh but fair to say that he presided over an Empire State in decline. Indeed, it's harsh but fair to say that Cuomo helped New York lose its groove.

New York City came back during those years as a vital population, business, and cultural hub, but Cuomo wasn't a factor in that. Upstate New York continued its post-industrial role as the poor relation to Downstate; East Germany to West Germany. Upstate's economic decline started right after World War II, so it's not as if Cuomo was its cause, but he certainly did nothing to revive the region (in fairness, it's not clear any governor since, including his son Andrew, has done much good on that score, either). For Cuomo, there was never a problem that couldn't be solved with a new government program, an expansion of an existing one, or new taxes and regulations.

As someone who grew up in the NYC area and lived in Buffalo for a few years toward the end of Cuomo's tenure, I can testify he was a ubiquitous presence in print and on TV. He filled the stage he was on and exceeded it in a way that very few governors do (Chris Christie is a current example). He could turn a phrase and he had the perpetual low-boil surliness and perpetual part-wince, part-sneer that marked him as a born-and-bred New Yorker who grew up on the outside of the power elite (the best kind, for sure, or at least the most ambitious). He could talk a great game, and not simply in his diatribes against Ronald Reagan and Republicans and tycoons who wore monocles and top hats. He would regularly bring up his youthful days as a baseball player in a sort of humblebrag before that was a term we knew; it linked him to sandlots and Joe DiMaggio and the days when Italians faced prejudice. It allowed him to talk about failure (pro scouts reported he couldn't hit a curveball with a tennis racket) in an area of his life disconnected from his political success. I don't mean this cynically when I say it was a brilliant way to flash his roots and connect with the immigrant, impoverished New York that so many voters could still remember long after Mario Cuomo himself ever had to worry about his next meal or his next job.

He was an unreconstructed liberal who was able to push through bad policies on the strength of his oratory and put-downs. I was in Buffalo to attend SUNY for grad school and a number of the profs there (all Democrats of course) loved that Cuomo had pushed to keep tuition constant for years and years. At the same time, they didn't understand why more and more wealthy kids were filling the classes (duh, it was a great education at a huge discount) and why there was less money coming into the school. A serious governor would have allowed tuition to rise to market value and then used the extra dough to help the people who really needed it. Instead, Cuomo helped beggar the whole system while giving a nearly free college education to middle and upper class New Yorkers.

The unworkability of his policies is precisely the reason why Cuomo became one the last of the unreconstructed liberals to hold a high place on the national political stage. For all his gifts in talking and fighting for his point of view, his policies in general didn't work very well. And when he had the opportunity to punch up to the next weight class, he refused to leave his corner. His dithering about a presidential run in 1992 sealed his fate as a state-level guy (a couple of years later, he'd lose even that perch to the undistinguished George Pataki).

But in a way, he would never have gotten that far, and not because he was "ethnic." Does anyone else remember Bill Clinton talking with Gennifer Flowers about Cuomo? Clinton tells her at one point that nobody named Mario is going to win at the national level, even in the Democratic primaries. Clinton says he "acts like a Mafioso" and is a "mean son of a bitch." As somebody who's half-Italian, I can remember those barbs almost making feel sympathetic toward Cuomo, who played the offended virgin perfectly in his response to Clinton's sorry-not-sorry apology. But Cuomo and no Italian Americans or any other sort of white ethnic for that matter were being hemmed in by their geneaology. Cuomo was the hangover of a liberal New York tradition whose day was done.

It's hard to remember now, but Bill Clinton really was a new kind of Democrat—yes, he raised taxes and tried to push through a stupid health-care overhaul. But he also was a true free trader who dispatched Al Gore to kick Ross Perot's ass in a debate over NAFTA. He cut capital-gains taxes and understood the value of work over welfare. Clinton, unlike Cuomo, understood that growing the economic pie made it easier to divvy things up, or even to hold government spending constant and see people do better and better. Cuomo had the politics of his younger years but was governing in a period when the economics underlying liberal, top-down, centralized control of everything had already come a cropper.

There's a reason why his son Andrew declared when taking office in 2011 that New York had to become a place where people could do business again. And that the state couldn't tax and spend its way out of its funk. Whether Andrew Cuomo has done anything to advance such an agenda is a different story, but his early calls for budget discipline represented a thorough and necessary critique of his own father's legacy as governor.

As Fred Dicker, The New York Post's longtime Albany watcher, puts it, "Cuomo inspired but did little for New York":

Gov. Mario Cuomo raised literally hundreds of state taxes to fund ever-expanding social programs and developed fiscal gimmicks, including the notorious scheme to "sell" the Attica Correctional Facility back to the state to pad public revenues so he could spend even more.

Cuomo rejected a chance to end the hugely expensive tolls on the New York State Thruway and he literally destroyed, under pressure from environmental activists, the Long Island Lighting Co. and its $5 billion Shoreham nuclear power plant, saddling Long Island residents to this day with some of the highest utility costs in the nation.

Mario Cuomo presided over the widening loss of upstate jobs, industry and population, of which he was well aware. Either because he didn't know how to address the problem or because, more likely, a deep streak of fatalism left him believing there was nothing he could do about it, the problem has continued to this day.

Although he didn't initially realize he was doing so, David Garth — Cuomo's longtime friend and political guru, who, coincidentally, died just a few weeks ago — encapsulated Mario Cuomo's failures as governor a few months before he was turned out of office in 1994.

Garth was overseeing Cuomo's bid for a fourth term and he was pressed at the Democratic nominating convention by several reporters to name some of the governor's accomplishments during his term in office.

After several seconds of cold silence, a clearly uncomfortable Garth responded, "Haven't you seen the new rest stops on the Thruway? They're really something."