When the Democratic convention was held in San Francisco (a city hit particularly hard by AIDS) in July of 1984, all of the different currents of liberal protest came together well aware that the party had little chance of regaining power against a popular president buoyed by a booming economy. Many had expected that Ted Kennedy would provide the keynote speech, but Walter Mondale, perhaps nursing grudges from 1980, insisted upon a lesser-known if no less compelling political figure: Mario Cuomo.
New York’s first-term governor drew upon a deeply compelling life story as he rose to the platform and introduced himself to the rest of America. He was born in 1932, the youngest son of Italian immigrants. His father, Andrea, had arrived six years earlier and cleaned storm sewers before acquiring a small grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens, the year before Mario’s birth. The store was open twenty-four hours a day, and as a boy Mario worked there after school with the rest of his family. Often hiding out in the back of the store, Mario developed a quiet and thoughtful persona. He became an altar boy and, unlike many of his fellow young South Jamaica residents, actually enjoyed Sunday school and the solitary act of reading. Like so many second-generation sons and daughters of immigrants, Mario struggled with his parents’ ethnic provincialism, particularly their embarrassing difficulties learning English.
Cuomo attended St. John’s University, where he played baseball well enough to make it to the minor leagues, and then went on to St. John’s Law School, earning his degree in 1956. St. John’s was hardly the Ivy League, a fact that burned inside young Mario, who never lacked confidence in his intellectual abilities or willingness to work hard. When he received no offers from elite law firms, he blamed anti-Italian prejudice, which undoubtedly played a role. This early experience with exclusion, whatever its inspiration, served as a blessing in disguise because it facilitated his entry into public service and inspired the passion he brought to it. Cuomo served as a law clerk with the New York State Court of Appeals and then became an advocate for Italian residents in Queens who were fighting the development of a high school in their neighborhood that would have destroyed sixty-nine homes—the so-called Corona Fighting 69. Mayor Lindsay noted his skills and hired Cuomo as a mediator in a heated dispute over a public housing development proposed for Forest Hills. He won both community and political support and impressed pretty much every political professional in the city. (Jimmy Breslin, the 1970s equivalent of Damon Runyon, went so far as to compare the young lawyer to the now-sainted Bobby Kennedy.)
But Cuomo’s success in politics proved fitful at best. Famously, even ostentatiously cautious, he had been compared with Hamlet in the outer boroughs of New York long before he began to drive the national press corps to distraction with his inability to make up his mind about his next move. After considering and rejecting a 1973 run for New York City mayor, he ran for lieutenant governor in 1974 and was badly defeated, but Governor Hugh Carey came to his rescue by appointing him secretary of state for New York. Then, in 1977, Cuomo did decide to run for mayor and stepped into a protracted political battle. In the Democratic primary—the only one that mattered—he faced not only Bella Abzug and Abe Beame but also Ed Koch, who, like Cuomo, enjoyed considerable outer-borough appeal with the kind of people who were almost ready to give up on the national Democratic Party and become what would be called Reagan Democrats. A huge stumbling block for Cuomo was his adamant opposition to the death penalty. However symbolic his stance on it might have been—New York City mayors had no authority related to criminal penalties whatsoever—the issue resonated loudly, as did any related to race and crime, particularly after the city’s horrific 1977 blackout and crime spree. Cuomo found himself spit upon at campaign events whenever he spoke against the death penalty, which, against all advice, he insisted on doing. After Koch won handily in a nasty runoff between the two, Cuomo began to take on the persona of a beautiful loser—a man who stuck to his principles and picked fights that increased his unpopularity but won him the admiration of pundits and romantics.