Hugh Reynolds: The legend of Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo in 1987. (Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel)

Mario Cuomo in 1987. (Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel)

The passing of former New York governor Mario Cuomo brought lots of memories for those of us in the media who had the privilege, or the burden, of covering him during his dozen tumultuous years (1983-94) in the office. For many, Cuomo, out of office for almost 20 years when he died, was but a fading memory, if any at all. I’m told there is now a large body of young people who have no active memory of 9/11.

While I never got any of those early-morning rants to which Cuomo subjected Capital District reporters, I did get to cover him on about half a dozen occasions. Early on, I discovered this man did not suffer fools.

It was one of those slow news days. Cuomo was in Callicoon for some kind of political event. It was worth a drive to the wilds of Sullivan County. The governor always attracted media when off the main trail.


Cuomo used to do what we called walking news conferences. He’d emerge from a private meeting and walk to his car fielding questions. Rarely was there a “no comment.”

On this occasion a red-haired radio guy from Sullivan served up a question about taxes, always a sore point with Cuomo. During his years as governor Cuomo, with the assent of the legislature, raised state spending by over 120 percent.

“Governor,” he yelled, “People say taxes are too high. What do you say about that?”

Cuomo stopped in his tracks, gave the reporter a baleful look, and said, “Which taxes?”

“You know, taxes,” Red said, almost plaintively, as some of us started edging away.

“Son,” the governor said dismissively, “get back to me when you have a more specific question.”

Cuomo tended to travel light. One time he arrived for an editorial meeting in Kingston with his budget director, Patrick Bulgaro, and a PR aide. Up close, Cuomo could be quite engaging. He liked to laugh. He left the rhetorical flourishes for the TV cameras. After a budget overview, he asked for questions.

With my redheaded colleague in mind, I prayed I had done my homework. Citing one of his budget’s billion-dollar initiatives, I pointed to numerous press reports that had the figure considerably higher. Wazzup?

Cuomo looked at me a little quizzically. A challenge? Here?

“Look it up, Pat,” he said to the gray little man sitting behind a stack of budget documents next to him. Pat flipped through some pages, stopped, frowned, and said, “He’s got it right, governor.” How do you spell relief?

“Fine,” said Cuomo. “Let’s talk about the program.”

I liked him for that.

He could be overbearing, dogmatic and bullying. He could just as easily sweep a crippled child up in his arms.

Mario Cuomo entered politics at a relatively late age, 42, thrust into the cauldron of a New York City mayoral Democratic primary. Even by city standards, his 1977 contest with future mayor Ed Koch was ugly. Few would forget the outrageous “vote for Cuomo, not the homo” placards displayed at a Koch rally in Greenwich Village. Cuomo supporters, of course, denied culpability. Such was the tenor of that slugfest that they suspected it was the Koch forces themselves who planted the signs in a kind of “false flag” attack. It was the kind of dirty trick in play in the 1970s.

Cuomo served as secretary of state under Hugh Carey for two years and then as his lieutenant governor in Carey’s second term. It was not a happy marriage. People like Mario Cuomo can only cause mischief in jobs where they have little to do. The upshot was that Carey endorsed Koch in a primary for governor over his own lieutenant governor.

Having just gotten the word, the story goes, a furious Cuomo charged into Carey’s office with nostrils flaring. Carey, a bruiser in his own right but guilty as charged, rose in anger. “Don’t get out of that chair, Hughie, if you know what’s good for you,” an even more outraged Cuomo warned. Carey sat down. Or so said sources at the time.

I liked Cuomo’s take on New York’s multi-ethnic melting pot. He saw the electorate as more of a mosaic of individuals who (hopefully) fit in together but kept their own identifies. He was forever reminding listeners of his own ethnic roots, the son of poor Italian immigrants who made a passable living from a grocery store in Jamaica, Queens.

Mario Cuomo was sensitive to ethnic slurs of any kind, especially against Italians. At one point, to general derision, he denied the existence of the Mafia. He found the Godfather movies stereotypical, even though the book’s author and the movie’s director were Italians.

He liked to tell stories about himself, the most fascinating figure in his life. His stories were often humorous and revealing, sometimes with a tinge of anger.

One of his favorites was the time shortly after his first election when he paid a courtesy call on New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in Washington.

“Have you met the president?” Moynihan asked. Cuomo, Ronald Reagan’s ideological foe, expressed something less than enthusiasm.

“He’s a nice guy,” Moynihan pressed. “He holds an informal cocktail party at the White House most Friday afternoons. It’s a good place to meet people. Let’s go.”

Cuomo tagged along. Inside, movers and shakers were moving and shaking. Cuomo and Moynihan were chatting off to the side when the president entered, shaking hands, slapping backs, relaxed. Reagan spotted the tall, white-haired senator from New York across the room and quickly walked over.

As Reagan approached, hand extended, Moynihan held him up with, “Mr. President, I’d like to introduce you to …” He got no further.

“Pat,” said Reagan in that gee-whiz style of his, “you don’t have to introduce me to this man. I’d know Lee Iacocca anywhere!”

As governor, Cuomo battled one budget crisis after another. Correct me if I’m right, as a former Kingston alderman used to say, but I don’t think a single budget was passed on time during his 12 years in office.

It started almost from Day One. “That man will not negotiate!” state Senate majority leader Warren Anderson fumed to reporters after emerging from a “three-men-in-a-room” meeting with Cuomo and Assembly speaker Stanley Fink. He was not referring to the affable assembly leader.