02 January 2015

R.I.P. Mario Cuomo

"Vote for Cuomo, not the homo!"

Posters bearing that message lined Queens Boulevard in the days leading up to the 1977 primary to determine the Democratic Party's candidate in that year's election for the mayor of New York City.  

Just about anyone who witnessed that campaign will tell you it was one of the ugliest in his or her memory.  I would concur with them:  That message, believe it or not, wasn't even the meanest or nastiest thing one candidate said about another in that race.

But it was almost certainly one of the sleaziest.  Cuomo--Mario, the father of current New York State governor Andrew--always denied that neither he nor any of his staffers had anything to do with creating or posting that message.  I believe him.  So do most other people, even those who were against everything he stood for, or who simply disliked him.  There was no shortage of either of those kinds of people.

Among them was Ed Koch, who won that primary and the election.  Until the day he died nearly two years ago, he insisted that Mario was responsible but later would say that he "forgave" but "didn't forget."

Rumors about Koch's non-heterosexuality followed him throughout his life.  Even in 1977, in the pre-AIDS flowering of the Gay Liberation movement, such an allegation could have derailed his road to Gracie Mansion; any evidence that it was true would have blocked it altogether.  Even in New York City, there were--and still are--homophobes.  

Now, I just happen to be one of those people who believe that Koch was gay but have never cared about it.  I had other reasons for disliking him and his style of governance, none of which had to do with his actual or perceived proclivities or lifestyle.

The irony is, of course, that Mario Cuomo would have been one of the last people to use a charge of homosexuality against Koch, or anyone else.  If anything, Mario was more unabashedly an ally of LGBT people than his son is.  The reason why same-sex marriage and other LGBT-friendly legislation passed under the younger Cuomo's residence in the Governor's Mansion is that the political and social climate has allowed for it.  

Andrew was elected Governor of New York State in 2010, in the middle of Barack Obama's first term as President.  His father, in contrast, earned his first of three gubernatorial election victories in 1982, just when the effects of Ronald Reagan's alliance with Christian fundamentalists--and his profoundly anti-labor (remember: he fired all of the nation's air traffic controllers when they went on strike the previous year) policies--were re-shaping this country's discourse and governance.  Mario's three terms in Albany coincided with the Presidencies of Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as the first two years of Bill Clinton's.  While the latter was nominally a Democrat, he won the 1992 Presidential election by co-opting the policies of Reagan and Bush the Elder.  Mario, on the other hand, stuck to his New Deal Democrat ideals--which, he always said, were an outgrowth of his Christian faith.  

In other words, Andrew has been surfing the tide of history that his father had to swim against.  But, to be fair, it must be said that it wasn't his championing of LGBT rights that cost Mario a fourth term as governor in 1994.  Rather, it was another of his core principles--one that, by the way, caused me to vote for him:  his staunch opposition to capital punishment.  Every year that he was Governor, the State legislature introduced a bill to restore the death penalty in the Empire State.  Every year that he was governor, he vetoed it.  One of the first things his successor, Republican George Pataki, did upon assuming office in 1995 was to sign it.

I think that his steadfast commitment to his principles may have been a major reason why he chose not to run for President, even though his party practically begged him to do so in 1988 and 1992.  If that's the case, his instincts were canny:  Clinton, who stood against much of what Mario believed in, won. 

(Actually, many would argue that Clinton won by not standing for anything at all--and with perhaps-inadvertent help from third-party candidate Ross Perot.  I would not dispute such an argument.)

So, in brief, with Mario Cuomo's death yesterday, this state--and nation--lost who may have been the last true liberal and the last true intellectual, as well as one of the few politicians with any real principles, this country has ever had.  And, oh yes, a champion of LGBT rights before it was fashionable. 

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