OP-ED: The legacy of Mario Cuomo

In November, 1993, Governor Mario Cuomo signed a bill into law that created a new $210M  program for mental health services by redirecting savings from psychiatric hospitals that were closing and creating a network of local programs. (Pictured with Cuomo are Sanders, the bill’s author, and State Senator Nick Spano.)

In November, 1993, Governor Mario Cuomo signed a bill into law that created a new $210M program for mental health services by redirecting savings from psychiatric hospitals that were closing and creating a network of local programs. (Pictured with Cuomo are Sanders, the bill’s author, and State Senator Nick Spano.)

By Former Assemblyman Steven Sanders

Much has been written about Mario Cuomo since his passing a week ago. I had the honor to serve in government as a member of the New York State Assembly during his 12 years in office as governor. During that time I got to know him on a personal and political basis.

Mario Cuomo was a fiercely loyal man. Loyal to his family, loyal to his convictions and loyal to the state that he governed from 1983 through 1994. He was a man of high intellect and unquestioned integrity. These traits seem desperately wanting in today’s generation of politicians… with notable exceptions of course. Mario Cuomo did not need a press advisor to distill what he said on a given issue. He was clear and articulate, and he was unequivocal. Reason, logic and eloquent speaking were his stock in trade in government. And unlike most, he led by example.

He was his generation’s spokesperson for the virtues of government as a force for good. When President Ronald Reagan declared that government itself was the problem, Mario Cuomo advocated the view that government is an equalizing and essential instrument for social progress when entrusted in the right hands. And like Lincoln he sought out “the better angels” of people’s nature.

When the public and politicians were clamoring and pandering for the death penalty as a way to respond to rising crime rates, Cuomo stood apart at great political risk and prevented its use in New York. Although a devout Catholic, and contrary to the importunes of the Church hierarchy, Cuomo made the legal and moral case for a woman’s right to choose. Before a national audience in 1984 Cuomo warned against the growing inequality in America and the schism of “haves” and “have nots” that was leading to “a tale of two cities” 30 years before Bill de Blasio co-opted that theme. Like the Kennedys of the 1960s, Mario Cuomo inspired a new generation of young people to join public service through his intellect and charismatic eloquence.

When given an opportunity to run for president in 1988 and 1992 he demurred and put any national aspirations aside because he felt that his promised work in New York State was still unfinished. That decision came from his heart as well as his head. Logic, loyalty and commitment overruled what may have been his political passions and ambitions.

He was different however on the sports playing field. As a talented baseball player (signed to a professional contract in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization) and an avid basketball player, Mario Cuomo played against teams from the Legislature and the Albany Press corps.

I saw firsthand how rough and aggressive an athlete he was, hardly cerebral. In those venues he was all brawn. You got in his way at your risk. Those who felt his sharp elbows underneath the basketball hoop in pursuit of a rebound know exactly what I mean!

But my lasting memory of Mario Cuomo was one of his first acts as governor in 1983. When he came to office he was faced with the largest budget deficit in the state’s history. The nation was in the grips of a deep recession. Unemployment was soaring. Revenues and state resources were evaporating. Difficult decisions were needed to balance the state’s budget. Governor Cuomo submitted his recommendations and remedies, but he also listened to other voices and ideas other than his own.

When the legislature finally passed the budget into law Mario Cuomo took to the rostrum in the Assembly chamber in an unprecedented appearance, and humbly declared, “I presented you a good budget proposal but you have returned an even better one.” He inspired cooperation and civility in politics. It is hard to imagine many leaders today exhibiting that kind of magnanimous behavior in this age of political narcissism and alpha egos.

I retired from the Assembly in 2006 after having served for 28 years. I have one picture of myself that I still display. It is a 1993 photograph of Governor Mario Cuomo signing one of my bills into law. I was so proud of his support and approval that day. I still am today.

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