Looking back at the life of unapologetic liberal Mario Cuomo

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo died Thursday at 82, leaving behind a reputation as a “liberal lion” after serving three terms from 1983 to 1994. Hari Sreenivasan remembers Cuomo’s political life, from his career as a fierce Democrat during Reagan’s presidency to seeing his own son and current New York governor Andrew Cuomo take on a second term in his former position.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    They are calling him a liberal lion. Mario Cuomo began life above his father's grocery store in Queens and died yesterday as a three-time governor known for unapologetic defense of liberalism.

    MARIO CUOMO, (D) New York Governor-Elect: We won because people — people and the passion of belief are still more important than money.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It was November 1982, and Mario Cuomo had just been elected governor of New York State. His victory marked the ascent of a son of Italian immigrants, who became a successful lawyer and then politician.

    Just five years earlier, he'd lost to Ed Koch in the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City. But, in 1978, he was elected lieutenant governor, and then captured the governor's mansion. There, Cuomo became a rallying point for liberal Democrats in the Reagan era.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    The truth is, ladies and gentlemen, that this is how we were warned it would be.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    He electrified the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco with an impassioned attack on Reaganomics.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    The Republicans called it trickle-down when Hoover tried it. Now they call it supply-side. But it's the same shining city for those relative few who are lucky enough to live in its good neighborhoods. But for the people who are excluded, for the people who are locked out, all they can do is stare from a distance at that city's glimmering towers.

    It's an old story. It's as old as our history. The difference between Democrats and Republicans has always been measured in courage and confidence. The Republicans…

    (APPLAUSE)

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    The strong, they tell us, will inherit the land.

    We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The speech energized the Democratic base and thrust Cuomo into the national spotlight.

    Ultimately, the Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, lost in a landslide. And Cuomo became the party's presumed front-runner for 1988. He pondered making the race, but passed in 1988 and again in 1992, earning the moniker Hamlet on the Hudson.

    In the end, Cuomo's national moment passed, and he gave the nominating speech for the Democrats' successful presidential candidate in 1992.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    It's time — it's time for change. It's time for someone smart enough to know, strong enough to do, sure enough to lead, the comeback kid, a new voice for a new America.

    Because I love New York, because I love America, I nominate for the office of the president of the United States the man from Hope, Arkansas, Governor Bill Clinton.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All told, Cuomo served three terms as governor, marked by his increasingly unpopular stances against the death penalty and for gun control.

    He also insisted lawmakers had no right to ban abortion, despite his own personal opposition rooted in Roman Catholic beliefs.

    In 2004, he spoke with Jeffrey Brown, on the "NewsHour," about balancing religion and politics.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    But the question really is, are you in communion with your church if, for example, you're a Catholic who accepts the abortion teaching, as I did, and lived by it for, say, 50 years, which we have, but refuses to take the position that now I have to make the whole society of non-Catholics, non-believers, and even those Catholics who do not accept the abortion — I have to impose a law upon them or attempt to?

    And if you do that, you're talking about a Catholic theocracy. And if you tell people that, they will never vote for a Catholic.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    By 1994, New Yorkers were no longer willing to vote for Cuomo, and he lost to George Pataki in that year's Republican wave.

    The following year, his political career now ended, he returned to private law practice. But, last year, in an interview with public TV station WLIW in New York, he suggested the career change had been liberating.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    I love the law. I love — I didn't love politics. As a matter of fact, I hate politics. I loved governing, which is, I hope, a different thing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And even out of politics, Cuomo remained at least partially in the public eye. He mediated a $162 million settlement between the owners of the New York Mets and victims of Bernard Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    They will be able to return to, as I say, normalcy. And that, I think, is a very good thing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And he lived to see his son Andrew Cuomo follow in his footsteps and win election and then reelection as governor of New York state.

    His death came the same day his son was sworn into office for a second time. And Andrew Cuomo poignantly paid tribute to his father in his inauguration speech.

    GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, (D) New York: He couldn't be here physically today, my father. But my father is in this room. He's in the heart and mind of every person who is here. He is here. And he's here. And his inspiration and his legacy and his experience is what has brought this state to this point.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mario Cuomo suffered from a heart condition in his final years. He died yesterday, at the age of 82.

    Online, you can watch more archival video of Mario Cuomo, including Jeff's 2004 conversation with him.

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