Daniel L. Feldman

Koch and Cuomo

In New York State Politics on November 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I had nothing against Mario Cuomo when he ran for Governor in 1982, but in the course of my work for Schumer I had gotten to know Ed Koch to some extent, and I liked him. When Schumer and I had in 1978 – quite justifiably – publicly criticized Blanche Bernstein, who had been running the City’s Human Resources Administration, Koch called us into a private meeting, and told us she was his “favorite” commissioner.  When we argued that our responsibility required us to expose City government mismanagement wherever we found it, and that he had quite enjoyed the results the previous year when he was running against incumbent mayor Abe Beame and the press had often headlined our exposures of failings of the Beame administration, Koch joked, in his trademark speech pattern, “but those were the baaaaaaad guys!” Previously, during that campaign, at his request and with him standing next to me I had called my friend Liz Holtzman to ask her to endorse him (she didn’t). Shortly after he took office, with my friends Ibby Lang and Gary Deane we put together what was in effect a road map for the Koch administration, pointing out all the crooks in various positions in the City’s poverty programs, which he used for a while to good effect.   So when Koch announced for Governor, I endorsed him.

After Cuomo won, he gave an inspiring inaugural address to the Legislature on New Year’s Day 1983. His famous keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in July 1984, “A Tale of Two Cities,” essentially recapitulated the earlier inaugural address.  When I heard the inaugural, I thought, “this will be a great governor.”

A few weeks later, he presented his budget proposals to the Legislature. While Mario faced legitimate pressure to impose drastic cuts, major targets of those cuts were the constituencies with the least political power, like the developmentally disabled and emotionally disturbed. Nowhere to be found was the “compassion” that seemed so central an element of his inaugural address. Mario gave great speeches. But as time went on, the disconnect between what he said and what he did became ever more apparent.

He did have some great lines. As a member of his audience on one occasion, he brought to my attention the great Peanuts cartoon where Schultz had Lucy, trying to console Charlie after losing yet another baseball game, say “Don’t feel bad, Charlie Brown, win some, lose some,” to which he responds, “Gee, wouldn’t that be great.”   In another speech, he reminded us that our grandparents or great-grandparents in Europe came over to the United States having been told that the streets were paved with gold. They discovered three things, he said: the streets weren’t paved with gold, they weren’t paved, and they had to pave them. (This wasn’t original with Mario either: see David A. Fryxell, Coming to America, Geneology.com.) In a third speech, he acknowledged that most people associated his background and interests with labor. (Although his previous work as an attorney provided little if any evidence for such assumptions, his chief political support in his first gubernatorial campaign did come from labor.) But, he asserted, he had family background in business, as well. His family had lost its business during the Great Depression. “A stockbroker jumped out of a window and landed on my father’s pushcart,” he joked.  I thought that line originated with Mario, but Jerry Skurnik told me he heard it long before Cuomo became an elected official

Mario cultivated the impression of himself as a cerebral governor. Students of his tenure would be hard-pressed, however, to find any accomplishment that resulted from his supposedly impressive intellect. In contrast, New York clearly benefited from the intellectual powers of Hugh Carey, who never made any great fuss about how brilliant he was.

We must not forget Mario Cuomo’s 1987 announcement of the “decade of the child.” When skeptics claim that its achievements were extremely modest, I counter that Andrew did quite well.

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  1. I heard the joke about the stockbroker & the hot dog cart long before Mario Cuomo became a public official

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