January 23, 2015
The intensive news coverage of the New Year’s Day death of former three-term New York Governor Mario Cuomo told only part of the story of one of America’s most prominent politicians of the late 20th century.
Yes, he was a “liberal beacon,” in the words of a New York Times headline. Yes, he prodded the conscience of the country – even if for only a moment – in his widely quoted, deeply moving 1984 keynote speech at Democratic National Convention when he described the United States as “a shining city on a hill.”
That was the speech where he observed that the “hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”
Yes, he weighed the idea of a presidential candidacy at a time when “liberalism” and “government” hadn’t been warped into politically dirty words. Yes, he rejected the opportunity to become one of President Bill Clinton’s two Supreme Court nominees.
Those of us journalists who covered Cuomo early in his political career can tell different stories.
I don’t remember the first article I wrote in February 1976 as a newbie reporter at the Knickerbocker News, an afternoon daily in Albany (although I have a copy filed away in a folder someplace at home) but I do remember the second. My assignment was to cover a press conference on changes in lobbyist regulations changes proposed by Cuomo, who was then New York’s appointed secretary of state and thus in charge of lobbyist registration and elections.
A year later, the ambitious Cuomo set his sights on Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor of New York. With Gov. Hugh Carey’s support, he jumped into a multi-candidate Democratic primary but lost to U.S. Rep. Ed Koch of Manhattan. It was not his first campaign failure, nor his last.
The first came in 1974 when he was the candidate for lieutenant governor on a slate that lost the Democratic primary. The opposition slate’s winning nominee for governor was Carey, a U.S. representative from of Brooklyn – the man who would providently rescue Cuomo politically a few months later by appointing him secretary of state and unwittingly set the stage for me to cover Cuomo on Feb. 11, 1976.
Things looked up for Cuomo in November 1978 when he was elected as Carey’s second-term lieutenant governor, succeeding Mary Anne Krupsak, who opted not to run again.
As many other lieutenant governors across the nation have learned, that job isn’t all power and glory. In reality, there’s not much of either, so Cuomo sometimes interrupted his idle time to wander from his Capitol office down the corridor to the press quarters to chat with the reporters.
Four years later, Carey decided not to run again for governor. That triggered a bitter primary fight between old rivals Cuomo and Koch.
During the campaign, Koch made disparaging remarks about sections of the state that had the misfortune to be located outside the boundaries of his beloved New York City. In a Playboy interview, the mayor criticized the “sterile” suburban and upstate lifestyle, characterized Albany as a “small town” and opined that the capital was “a city without a good Chinese restaurant.”
Koch’s comment about Albany’s restaurant scene hit a sensitive nerve. Thus my editors agreed to let our food critic, Vinod Chhabra, and me undertake a major investigative assignment – taste-testing the favorite New York City dining haunts of Koch and Cuomo. After all, turn-about is gastronomically fair play.
We invited each candidate to accompany us to his own favorite dining spot. Koch balked. Cuomo agreed. And Vinny and I set off by early-morning Greyhound to the Big Apple. We were on our own for lunch at the restaurant Koch tabbed as his favorite.
But that evening we rendezvoused with would-be Governor Cuomo, meeting up at his house in Queens and heading to Stella Ristorante for great food and conversation. The menu? We let him order and I don’t recall the details other than I recall that the dinner included orzo.
Another thing I learned during that campaign that didn’t appear in the obituaries concerned Cuomo and cars. Because he suffered from back pain, he drove a Checker – the model used by taxis – because it provided good back support. Cuomo liked driving, so a state trooper on his protection squad rode shotgun in the front passenger seat rather than taking the wheel. And when Cuomo talked to a rear-seat passenger like me, he turned his head away from the road and faced backward –to the trooper’s dismay.
There was a tradition in Albany of an annual softball game between the Capitol press corps and the governor’s office. As a young man, Cuomo had spent one year on a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team, and it would be safe to say that none of us reporters had comparable professional sports experience. Nor did we journalists have the advantage of state troopers on our staffs, so the governor’s team usually had little difficulty in defeating us. Win or lose, however, we all retired to the Governor’s Residence afterwards for a post-game BBQ, with Cuomo at the grill.
I left Albany in 1984 to join the Lansing Bureau of the Detroit News. Cuomo and I last met when I was one of the journalists questioning him on a WAMC public radio talk show.
Afterwards, my journalistic attention focused on other governors, James Blanchard and John Engler, Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder, so I paid less and less attention to events in Albany. However, I did feel personally disappointed twice by decisions Cuomo made before his last, failed campaign for reelection in 1994.
One was the sale of Camp Topridge, one of the largest of the “Great Camps” of the Adirondacks and once owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post of C.W. Post and General Foods fame. Post left it to the state, which used its main lodge and “rustic” guest cottages as a conference center, and I stayed in one of those cottages overnight as a guest speaker at a training workshop for state security officers. On Cuomo’s watch and amid concerns about the costs of maintaining the site, the state sold most of the property to a private owner, with the rest of the land added to the Adirondack Preserve.
In my view, it should have remained in state hands as a legacy landmark of New York’s cultural and architectural history.
The other was his decision not to seek the presidency. While that decision carried obvious weighty policy and political implications, it also sharply reduced the chances of my dining with any president, let alone one who had shared Italian cuisine with me at a favorite neighborhood restaurant.
ric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. He is a former Lansing Bureau reporter for the Detroit News and has been a Fulbright journalism instructor in Uzbekistan, Lithuania and the Republic of Georgia.