They came by the hundreds to say farewell to Mario Cuomo at his funeral in Manhattan this week, including some who had been inspired by the three-term governor to go into public service. Others joined the mourners to pay their respects to a decent and brilliant man who demanded the best from government.
Queens burst onto the national political scene back in 1984 when Cuomo transfixed the nation with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco after Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated to run for vice president.
Both were Italian-Americans with Cuomo’s roots in the borough stretching back to his early days living over his grandfather’s grocery store in South Jamaica and Ferraro’s beginning with her marriage to a Forest Hills man.
Americans were mesmerized by the New York governor with the golden tongue and the liberal agenda who took President Reagan to task for ignoring the poor. His view that government could be compassionate and fiscally prudent at the same time resonated with many around the country and he became a sought-after candidate for higher office who never grabbed the golden ring. After her ticket’s defeat, Ferraro left Congress and Cuomo went on to serve two more terms in Albany before losing his bid for a fourth term to Republican George Pataki in 1993 largely because of his opposition to the death penalty.
Cuomo never forgot his Queens heritage, which shaped his career and his personal life. He attended St. John’s University, where he played on the baseball team as a freshman and was recruited to play minor league baseball. An injury forced his early exit from pro sports and he returned to St. John’s to marry fellow student Matilda Raffa and graduate in 1953. They had five children and she remained at his side until he died Jan. 1. After finishing at the top of his class at St. John’s law school, Cuomo was rejected by several elite Manhattan law firms.
“I obviously am the original ethnic from Queens: my hands, my face, my voice, my inflections,” he was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
These Queens traits had wide appeal far beyond white-shoe Manhattan, however, and Cuomo was courted to run for president by the Democratic Party and to take a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dubbed “Hamlet on the Hudson,” Cuomo was known for his deep soul-searching on whether to run or become a justice. Ultimately, he said no to both paths.
Despite what might have been, Cuomo left a rich legacy as a principled lawmaker who fought for the less fortunate, stood by his own beliefs and took pride in his Queens origins.
We will miss him greatly.