By Sarina Trangle
Former Gov. Mario Cuomo, a son of South Jamaica who became a national Democratic icon, died Thursday. He was 82.
Those close to Cuomo remembered him as a masterful public speaker with an unwavering commitment to principles.
“He had a way of speaking from his heart directly into yours, and that is a unique talent in this business,” said City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), whose father, the late Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin, and Cuomo were friends, leading their children to grow up together in Queens. “He stuck to his principles, even when he knew they were unpopular.. He was opposed to the death penalty, even though it was wildly popular in the 1970s. It’s actually why he lost the mayorship to Ed Koch, but I think it actually won him the governorship in 1982.”
Cuomo died just hours after his son Andrew was sworn into office for his second term as New York’s governor, following in his father’s footsteps.
The son of Italian immigrants, Mario Cuomo grew up in a South Jamaica home behind the grocery store his parents ran. His family later moved to Hollis. He graduated from St. John’s Preparatory School, earned a degree from St. John’s University and then graduated from its law school.
Cuomo cut his teeth representing Corona homeowners facing displacement to make way for a high school and helped broker a compromise when Forest Hills railed against the construction of public housing.
“He was always the same Mario,” said former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman. “He always wanted to do the right thing and to make things better for people who were vulnerable.”
After losing a bid for lieutenant governor in 1974, Cuomo was appointed secretary of state under Gov. Hugh Carey, whom he later served beside as lieutenant governor.
Cuomo ran for mayor in 1977, but was rebuffed by Ed Koch.
He seized the governorship in 1982, surmounting Koch in a primary and GOP candidate Lewis Lehrman, and went on to serve three terms until he was defeated for a fourth term by Republican George Pataki.
His oratory talent, however, had already taken him nationwide when he gave the keynote address at the 1984 National Democratic Convention in San Francisco, where Forest Hills’ Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as the party’s vice presidential candidate and the first woman to run for that office. His talk focused on the struggles of low-income families.
Cuomo, known affectionately as “Hamlet on the Hudson” for his deep deliberations on his political future, flirted with running for president after the Democratic Party tried to draft him but never did so. He also turned down an offer of a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court from then President Bill Clinton.
.“Mario Cuomo was the first candidate that I remember really embracing the idea of New York City being a city of immigrants,” Weprin said. “He was the local Queens kid done good.. Queens is a big place, but Mario described it like it was any small town in America.”
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (718) 260–4546.