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December 28, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 52
O Cuomo, all ye faithful
by Joanna Mermey
“This guy’s the hottest piece of flesh in town,” political pundit Doug Ireland informed a crowd at the Lion’s Head after Mario Cuomo had mesmerized the Village Independent Democrats. One year after the club had violently denounced a scale-down of the Forest Hills project by a margin of 10 to one, it welcomed Cuomo, the compromiser, with open arms.
“I don’t get it,” said one member. “Last year we ranted and booed when Ed Koch presented a compromise. Either we’ve changed or Cuomo made us understand the whole mess.”
District Leader John Lo Cicero explained why Cuomo had been invited. “I heard he spoke at Matty Troy’s club in Queens and that he was good, very good. He relates to an Irish and Italian working-class crowd.”
“But isn’t the VID full of Jewish liberals?”
“Yeah,” Lo Cicero said, “his name has been bandied about for city-wide office, and I thought typical reformers should be exposed to someone who is not a typical reformer.”
Cuomo walked into the room at 9 p.m., looked at the crowd, and paled. “I don’t think they are going to like me,” he said. They’re all fired up and I’ve got a drab speech about the history of Forest Hills and Corona.”
He said his reason for speaking at the VID was to try to interest the Villagers in the concept of scatter-site housing. “With the plethora of candidates available, I don’t understand why this club would want me,” he mused.
“Your name has been mentioned for city-wide office,” I pressed.
“I’m an Italian from Queens,” he said. “Since Italians from Queens are in high demand, people tend to assume.” Cuomo thought the idea of his running was unrealistic since he lacked money, a political organization, and an identity. “But it is flattering.”
When asked about Troy’s support, he hedged, “I’m sure Matty’s involved with potentials now. He told me he’s not running. With the nine kids, his wife would throw him out.”
Ireland ambled into the meeting. I’m here to see Mario,” he announced.
“Is the William Marcy Tweed Club reporting him for city-wide office?”
Ireland’s face clouded. “Keep the Tweed Club out of it. Mario Cuomo is the singular most impressive person in politics. There’s a real despair about 1973, and people are looking for someone like him to appear. He’s one of the few guys who could save the city.” Ireland was serious.
Within minutes after Cuomo had been introduced, the articulate lawyer had won the crowd. During a VID meeting, it’s customary for everyone who is anybody to stand in the hallway and trade political gossip. Only the peons who don’t know any better listen to the speakers. Mario Cuomo broke a tradition. The hallway was empty.
“I am not Linday’s anything,” he said emphatically. “You know who got us into Gracie Mansion? Jimmy Breslin, that’s who. The people of Corona were Italian-Americans who made love and drank wine all day. When they learned their homes were to be taken they said rosary after rosary and hoped for a miracle. It came in the form of Breslin. One day he arrives in Corona. He’s a short, fat, hairy little guy wearing a sweater. We didn’t know what he was doing there. We thought his wife was an Italian. Breslin calls Lindsay a hun and the gates to Gracie Mansion opened.”
“The people of Corona fought,” he continued. “When it came time for a site-selection meeting, only one member of the site selection committee showed up, and the Borough President had the chutzpah to be in Florida. The people were so mad they climbed over the railing.”
He attacked the city for making a charade of public hearings and never listening to the people of the community, who “might have some common sense.” “If only they had listened to the people of Corona,” he said sadly, “we never would have had a Forest Hills.”
The VID-ers shook their heads in agreement, remembering the agony of West Village housing and the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Here was someone who made sense and respected their intellect.
The crowd of liberal Villagers didn’t blink when he said the city was rapidly moving to the right, or when he attacked the media for blowing Forest Hills sky high. A year ago these same people would have jumped out of their seats at those suggestions.
The club gave him a very warm hand. During the question and answer period, the bitterness the liberals felt about Forest Hills should have come out, but never did. They didn’t question the compromise, but asked about crime and undesirables in the neighborhoods — questions that might have been asked in Queens. Cuomo told them it was also the responsibility of the real estate industry, the federal government, Westchester, and Long Island to share the burden.
The gossip began to fly when the meeting ended. “I never saw the club so quiet,” Lo Cicero said. “He’s one hell of a candidate.” Club members were trying to decide on whose ticket he should run and whether he was more suitable for comptroller, City Council president, or even mayor.
Why does Mario Cuomo appeal to conservative working-class ethnics in Queens and Greenwich Village liberals? What caused the Villagers to re-evaluate their position on Forest Hills? Are crime and violence causing a chain reaction throughout the city, or was it that Cuomo presented the Corona/Forest Hills story so reasonably? His emphasis was on the people of Corona and Forest Hills, the “wine-drinking Italians and Jews in fur coats,” foreigners to each other with similar problems. He brought the problems of real people to the VID and asked them to judge. They accepted his decision.
Cuomo’s not a politician yet. He is beholden to no one, and no one can accuse him of selling them down the river for political purposes. He was the only one to come out of the Forest Hills controversy unscathed. He’s a man to watch closely.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]