News & Politics

Mario Cuomo: The Candidate Almost Nobody Knows

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The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in the September 14, 1982 edition of the Village Voice, as Mario Cuomo was campaigning for New York state governor. After defeating Ed Koch in the democratic primary, Cuomo won the November 5 general election, winning 50.91 percent of the vote, compared to 47.48 percent won by his Republican opponent, Lewis Lehrman.


Had there been a ketchup bottle on the table, the candidate would have analyzed the label, but in the bare campaign office, he dissected his opponent instead.

“Megalomania is not the right word for the mayor,” Mario Cuomo said. “It’s more complicated. You’ve got to remember that he’s totally alone. And that leads to two things. One, more than most people, he’s free to singlemindedly pursue his objectives. To be sure, by being so alone, he does give up a lot; but the second result is that the mayor has probably suffered less rejection than the rest of us.”

Cuomo looked out the window and laughed. “Wow, for most of us the whole day is a series of rejections. The kids reject you, your wife rejects you. Sometimes the dog rejects you. But because he is not used to being rejected as an ordinary part of life, Koch is more concerned about being rejected than most of us. That’s what happened in our first debate. That’s what happened in our first debate. That’s why he was off stride. I could sense it. He was uncomfortable because he sensed rejection in that audience, and he finds it very difficult to deal with the possibility that he’s not going to be accepted.”

*

The fist debate. It was the first big day of the campaign, and for the contender from Queens, it could have been his last big day. If Mario blew it, or managed only a sour draw, press interest in the primary contest would collapse because, what the hell, the reporters and their editors already figured Mario would be back in private law practice in November. And maybe, on the side, teaching a night school philosophy course in his continual struggle to answer Duke Ellington’s question, “What Am I Here For?”

The main event, under the auspices of the New York Post, was scheduled for Imperial Ballroom A, Sheraton Centre, on the morning of July 7. Since politics is theater (or used to be before Dave Garth replaced parades and free beer), the Post assigned Clive Barnes to cover the occasion. The next day, Barnes, his professional expertise gleaming, noted that Mario (a/k/a Rocky), had arrived for the 9 a.m. Debate “at 8:59 on the button,” threading his way through the crowd “like a prizefighter making a strategically planned late arrival for a weigh-in.”

The New York Times also reported that “Mr. Cuomo drew applause by arriving a minute before the starting time.”

Murry Kempton Newsday did not applaud. “Bad move on Mario’s part,” Kempton said through his pipe as Rocky neared the ring. “Winners come early. Edward Bennett Williams is always there a half and hour before the the court opens.”

*

Beth Fallon, in the Daily News, scored the fight: “Cuomo 10 rounds, Koch zero, or possibly one.”

All members of the press at ringside agreed, and so reported.

The next day I asked the candidate from Queens how much he figured his strategically planned late arrival had had to do with his rout of the mayor and the consequent surge, at least for the time being, in his campaign.

Cuomo shook his head, doubtlessly reflecting on the press’s bottomless capacity to believe in its own inventions. “Let me tell you what was going on at my house yesterday morning,” the candidate leaned forward. “First, a member of my staff had told me the night before that the debate was for 9:30. All right. Second, instead of going off by myself with the briefing book before breakfast, I had a fight with two of my daughters. What about? What does a father fight with daughters about? One came home late, and I’d stayed up until she did come home. The other one, I don’t like the guy she’s going out with.

“So those two fights made me a little late plus, you remember, I have the time wrong. And the driver from my office is a little late. Meanwhile, Matilda is aggravating me because she doesn’t like the tie I have on. So I have to change the tie. But what the hell, we got till 9:30. Just to make sure, I open my book. It says 9. In the car, with the state police, through the traffic, and we just get to the Sheraton about three minutes to nine. I have to stop in the men’s room, then up the stairs, and there it is — my brilliant, strategically planned late arrival!”

*

George Arzt, also reporting on the main event for the Post, noted: “Koch aides said one possible reason for the mayor’s flat performance was his surprise at a Gannett Newspapers poll . . . showing his lead over Cuomo cut to just eight points, down two per cent since a similar Gannett poll was taken in May.”

I had seen that statewide poll at about 10 past eight that morning when a just-arrived reporter from Today, the Gannett paper in Westchester County, had shown it around at one of the press tables. The most intriguing paragraph in the story was the third: “. . . Among those Democrats considered most likely to vote in September, Cuomo actually is a slim three points ahead of Koch, the poll found.”

But how had Koch — way across the room, surrounded by stout contributors — seen the story of the poll before the debate started? Then I remembered swift young men who, around quarter to nine, had suddenly materialized with copies of the Today story that they were distributing to selected tables.

With a grin of achievement, Bill Haddad owned up to being the orchestrator of the Dread Poll Operation that had rattled Koch. Haddad, an inveterate investigator and turnler, as a journalist or a muckraker on the payroll of the state, is Cuomo’s disheveled campaign manager. A Lyn Nofziger of the slightly left-of-center.

“I was looking for something to unnerve Koch that morning,” Haddad said, “and I knew that poll was coming out. So, as soon as the copy of Today arrived arrived at the press table, those splendid Kennedy-type volunteers we have went to work. The hotel Xerox wasn’t functioning, so we got it done outside. Just in time to hit the tables where the press and the politicians were and” — Haddad grinned more widely — “just in time to put it under Koch’s plate. I myself made sure he got one of the very first copies.”

From other sources, I discovered another way Haddad had productively enjoyed himself that morning. The more than 600 who came to breakfast consisted largely of banking and real estate power brokers (as Honest John Lindsay used to call them). Or, as Haddad put it, “I’d say 70 per cent of this crowd has already contributed to Koch’s campaign.”

Knowing that his candidate would be saying certain things that these passionate devotees of socialism for the rich would find unpalatable, Haddad managed to arrange for some 200 of his own people to also be invited to breakfast. That way, at least somebody would laugh at Mario’s one-liners. If an audience is entirely cold, even Dizzy Gillespie has trouble remembering why he took up the horn.

The picaresque Haddad’s seeding of the audience turned out, however, not to be necessary. Cuomo was so relentlessly sharp and funny — and Koch so stiff and whiny — that even the princes of the city could not resist laughing, sometimes derisively, at their own candidate. Especially when he embarrassed himself.

As when the mayor accused the lieutenant governor of so lacking the confidence of his liege lord that when Hugh Carey left the state, he did not put Cuomo in charge. Mario noted, with a Florentine smile, that this was an odd point to be raised by chief executive who thought so little of spunky Carol Bellamy that when Koch left town, he took pains not to leave the scepter with Carol.

“And now,” Mario turned to Ed, “you’re saying you want to make her the mayor.”

Koch, suddenly the very model of chivalric indignation, retorted: “It’s perfectly appropriate that you attack or defame in any way Carol Bellamy.”

Jeers from the tables, snickers even from a few waiters, as Koch stood there, looking hurt and bewildered at such disrespect toward him and, oh yes, toward Carol Bellamy. He may have used such terms as “horror show” and “pain in the ass” in describing her in the past, but he’d been just kidding around, as you do with a pal.

Gamely, the mayor continued: “She has the potential and ability to make a great mayor.”

More jeers and quite ungraceful guffaws. The whole spectacle reminded some elders in the audience — by contrast — of Franklin D. Roosevelt charmingly getting even his enemies to laugh with him when he said it was perfectly appropriate for his political opponents to attack him an to attack his wife and his children. But not his dog Fala. The difference between FDR and Koch, of course, is that Roosevelt had none of Uriah Heep in him.

*

If the mayor indeed exceptionally sensitive to rejection, that was a black Wednesday. Andy Logan, The New Yorker‘s unsparingly attentive mayor-watcher, noted that after the debate with Cuomo the mayor found waiting for him at City Hall pickets from the municipal unions, at the time being treated by the mayor as if they had scrofula. And one of the signs read:

“Mayor Koch. I am a police officer. In the event of my death, my family bitterly opposes your presence at my funeral.”

*

Cops. A night during the campaign that ordinarily would have been a most pleasant one for the candidate from Queens. The Columbian Association of New York — composed of Italian police officers, most of them Roman Catholic — has invited Mario and a representative of the mayor to speak. These cops like Mario. Except for one thing. The death thing.

The candidate tells what happened during that death watch. As he gets into the story, taking all the parts, being each speaker, his cadences changing as the speakers change, Cuomo’s style is beginning to sound very familiar. It is like — it is like listening to, of all people, Lenny Bruce:

“On the way in, it’s ‘Hey, Mario!’ ‘Hey buddy!’

“Inside, I barely get started, and a guy with a hard voice yells, ‘Come on, let’s get to the death penalty!’

“Oh, Jesus. Okay, let’s talk about the death penalty.”

“You’re full of shit, Mario!”

“Come on, listen, it’s a hard subject, listen to me.” For the next 10 minutes, Cuomo tries to get the cops listen, but, with only glancing success. Shaking his head, he takes off his jacket and notices the mayor’s representative, John Locicero, watching with great amusement.

“What’s the matter with you?” a cop shouts at Cuomo. “They did it to your own daughter! They did it to your own daughter! They did it to your own wife!”

“Now, listen,” Mario glares, “you guys think you’re tough — ”

“No, you listen,” another cop stands up. “We all want it, Mario, and you won’t give it to us! Who the hell are YOU!” The cop turns his back on Cuomo.

“You turn your back on me, you son of a bitch!” the gentle candidate roars. “Turn around!”

The cop turns around.

The candidate observes to himself, just in passing, “These are cops, they’re sitting there with guns.”

Another policeman rises. “I want to tell you,” he says, “John Scarangella was my buddy.”

The candidate breathes deeply. John Scarangella was killed in the line of duty in April 1981, and Anthony Laborde and James Dixon York were recently tried for his killing. The murder charges didn’t stick. (The verdict came in after Mario Cuomo’s evening with the Columbian Association.)

“My partner got killed by these animals,” the cop says. “You understand, killed before he could get out of the car. And you’re against the death penalty!”

The 300 or so cops in the room explode. Cuomo looks at them, waiting until he can be heard.

“Yes, I’m against the death penalty because I’m not an animal. And you’re not animals. What you do when you go out there is protect society, not the animals. You’re protecting what he died for. Those are my values too. So, if we don’t agree about the death penalty, that does not mean I do not honor Scarangella.

“So let me tell you something else about this death penalty. Mistakes can be made. If you’re going to tell me that as a society, we should say we’re going to kill people and occasionally we’re going to make a mistake and some kid and some family is going to do without a father who was innocent, you had better prove it’s a deterrent. Don’t ask me for statistic. You have to come up with them.”

“Mario,” a cop stands up. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!

“That’s the Old Testament,” Cuomo snaps. “You’re the New Testament, you jerk. You want to know about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, ask the guy who wrote the other book.”

And so it goes, until the candidate says: “Let me tell you guys something. I don’t agree with you on this, and I’ll never agree with you on this. I’m here because I respect you and I like you. You know, nobody likes the cops the way I do. Nobody respects Italians the way I do. Nobody wants more to see Italians advance.

“But I respect you so much, I’m not going to sell out on this issue because then I’m a whore. Tell me something. How many of you think that if I changed my opinion on this death thing, we’d win this election?”

Cheers, applause, table pounding.

“I can’t do it,” says Cuomo. “Because if I do that, we lose even if we win. Because if I do that, I’m a nothing. What the hell do I stand for then? And I want you to think about something. What would you tell your children? That it would make us better as a people to kill these people — or to choose not to kill them?”

On the way out, the candidate, unarmed, receives a standing ovation from the members of the Columbian Association.

*

At a meeting of “progressives,” as they like to call themselves, who had enthusiastically worked for Frank Barbaro last year, a large, dour man explains why he will vote against Koch but not devote any energy to Cuomo:

“The man lacks passion. The man lacks ideology. What’s his ideology?”

“I don’t know about the ideology,” says a Puerto Rican organizer. “Most of what he says sounds right to me, but there’s no snap to the punch. Like you say, no passion.”

“The real problem Cuomo,” adds a woman with a city job, “is that he wants everybody to love him. You don’t get anything done that way.”

*

At the Brighton Beach baths, on a breezy Sunday, the candidate is surrounded by middle-aged and older citizens whose blood is pumping hard. They are not used to seeing, so close, a perfect fool who could have come from Chelm itself.

It is as if death is on the ballot. “Listen,” Cuomo has to shout to be heard, “When they catch the guy who touched my daughter, they’ll find 18 arrests and no convictions. They haven’t given you enough police, they haven’t given you enough prisons — and all the while, you people are talking about the death penalty.”

This being a fool who was clearly born that way, the voters depart. Forevermore.

*

A visitor has heard about the standing ovation given the candidate from Chelm by the police officers of the Columbian Association. Maybe you pulled out some votes there?

“No, they’re not going to vote for me,” Cuomo says. “They’ll go for Koch. That ovation wasn’t for me. They don’t even like me. They resent my making them uncomfortable about this death thing.

“You know what they were applauding? The idea that they might be better than they think they are, that their kids might turn out to be better than them. They were really saying to me, ‘You’re right, you’re right. We should be against killing, even killing the animals.’ ”

*

He has one very bad flaw in his makeup: the silly son-of-a-bitch actually believes. — Jimmy Breslin, preface to Forest Hills Diary by Mario Cuomo, 1974.

*

“I’ll tell you the big reality in this campaign,” Cuomo had jumped smack into his solo, without a warmup, like Coleman Hawkins. “People want to believe something. There is a great emptiness out there. The nuclear freeze is the perfect expression of that need to believe. The nuclear freeze says nothing except life is better than death. Peace is better than war. So why do people get excited by the idea? Because it’s something positive to believe in. And it makes them feel good to believe in something positive.

“They not only want something to believe in, they want somebody to believe in. The hunger is such, it could be Benito Mussolini. It could be Hitler. But I suspect it’s somebody who makes them feel better about themselves. Between hope and fear, if they’ve got the choice, I think they’ll go for hope.”

I was glad to hear that, I said, but maybe I didn’t say it resoundingly enough.

“It sounds primitive, huh?” The candidate looked at me. “It sounds simplistic? I tell you, from touching thousands of hands by now, and from talking to every kind of group, I’m absolutely certain I’m right. I know what they want.”

“You’re running on hope,” I said, “and Koch is running on fear, is that it?”

“I’m just trying to tell you what I see out there. I see this great need.”

“Can you respond to it, Mario?”

“I don’t know. There’s another question — can I respond to it and win?”

*

Before the first debate with Koch, there had been Cuomo speech at the Democratic convention in Syracuse. The Cuomo speech that woke up the press.

Wrote Beth Fallon in the News: “The joint went wild and the so-called experts like myself looked at one another with a wild surmise: If Cuomo talked like that every day, he could beat Ed Koch, we told each other. . . . But the question is, will Cuomo talk that way? And is the Democratic electorate, deep in its heart, on his wavelength still?”

*

“You should have seen them at the convention,” the candidate says. “And I said nothing. They applauded lines like: ‘I know democratic principles can work for today’s minorities — without threatening the middle class. The way they worked for yesterday’s minorities. Unless those of us who were at the bottom yesterday forget.’

“What’s the big deal in a line like that? You know what they’re saying by applauding a line like that? They’re, ‘Shit, that’s right. Let’s be fair. It’s nice to be fair.’ They want to be good. They really want to be good. It’s as simple as that. You know how you feel when somebody falls on the street, and everybody is walking past her, but you take the time to go over and help her up. You feel good about yourself.”

“Back in 1977,” I remind the candidate of something he had told me then, “you said: ‘Oh, there’s a ferocious feeling out there. I could win the election by coming out for capital punishment. Especially for gays. And I could absolutely clinch it if I came out for capital punishment preceded by torture.’ So Koch beat you. So what really is new?”

“I’m going to find out,” Cuomo says. “Marybe what they really want to hear is Frank Rizzo. I’m going to find out.”

*

The lieutenant governor is walking through a prison in Erie County with the Republican sheriff. In one cell, he sees a girl who looks like one of his daughters.

“How long has she been in?” he asks the sheriff.

“Two months. She couldn’t make bail. Three thousand dollars. She’s from Massachusetts.”

“What did you do?” Cuomo asks her.

“Prostitution.”

“You had a knife?”

“No.”

“She got a record?” the lieutenant governor asks the sheriff.

“First offense.”

“When will they reach her?”

“A month,” says the sheriff. “Two months.”

“That’s four months at $52 a day,” says Cuomo. “And we’ve got violent criminals o the streets.”

“Mario,” the sheriff looks at him, “this makes no sense. I know that. But they’re coming down hard on prostitution in Bufalo.”

They move past the girl in the cell. “It’s stupid,” says the lieutenant governor.

“Yeah,” says the sheriff.

*

“My son Christopher is 11,” the candidate is saying to me early one morning while Haddad is working the phone with enormous and pleasurable concentration. “If I were to die,” Cuomo continues, “and Matilda were to run off, and Christopher’s brothers and sisters were to disappear, what would happen to my son if he wound up living in the middle of a ghetto with the kind of family that Jimmy Breslin writes books about? No father. Plenty of drugs around. By time he’s 13, he’ll be holding somebody up with a gun. Maybe by the time he’s 12.

“When he’s 14, he’s picked up for robbery, and now you can put him in Auburn — my 14-year-old son with my genes. And he’ll be an animal in a year and a half. They’ll sodomize him. They’ll brutalize him.”

“So what would you do,” I asked, “with a kid who was turned into an animal? The ones out there now. The ones who didn’t start with anything.”

“Those youngsters, who have not been educated — and who have not learned anything about discipline — ought to be put into camps. Not those camps for three-card-monte players on Riker Island and Hart Island Koch is setting up. I mean places where these kids will learn work habits, will go to school, will not have television to watch. You’ve got to be tough on them, just as tough as you are on your own kids, it shows you lack love. Same with these kids. If you’re not tough on them, you don’t care about them. Before they got out, they’d have to know a lot of basic stuff. If you want them to be feel good about them-selves, you can’t let up on them.”

Cuomo stopped, and smiled. “That would work. But I got to tell you something else. In 1992, whoever is the mayor or the governor is going to be considered a genius because youth crime will be way down then. You look at the demographics, and you’ll see there are going to be fewer young people by then, and therefore fewer unemployed young people, and therefore less crime. And I’ll say, ‘Crime dropped because I gave them purple uniforms, you noticed? Look at the correlation between the purple uniforms and the statistics.’ ”

*

The Nassau County Comptroller, Peter T. King, a Republican, said Mr. Koch has “great appeal because he’s basically talking middle-class values that appeal to the neighborhoods and communities in Nassau and Suffolk just as they do in Bay Ridge and Queens.”

Frank Lynn, New York Times February 28, 1982.

As Mayor of New York, Mr. Koch shows his deliberate blindness to the predicament of the masses of blacks and Hispanic people. . . . He can no longer be excused in terms of childish insensitivity. The persistence of his pattern of rhetoric and behavior in regard to these minorities indicates a not-too-subtle quest for political advantage. This is the Northern urban version of the racist politics that dominated campaigns in the South before enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

— Dr. Kenneth Clark, New York Times, July 18, 1980

*

Side-by-side headlines in the August 21, 1982, Amsterdam News:

CUOMO PICKS SUPPORT IN HARLEM

HARLEM INFANT MORTALITY RATE HIGHEST IN NATION

*

Audrey Bynoe of the Vanguard Independent Association, a thriving political club in central Brooklyn (Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights), laughs when I ask her to cite the mayor’s most fundamental failings with regard to the city’s black citizens.

“How much time do you have?” she says. “But most fundamentally, I think it’s disrespect, basic disrespect. Just look at our streets, look at how seldom garbage. Look at the lights. It is no accident that we get the worst of services. Look at what Koch has done to our hospital care. The cutbacks are where we live.”

But Cuomo, does he have a change?

“I think he has a very good change,” Audrey Bynoe, Al Vann’s campaign manager, says briskly. “In our community, we do have a hard time maintaining our position, which is also his against the death penalty because a lot of people here are really for it. Nonetheless, I think you should see a strong black for Cuomo. He is beginning to identified black leaders.”

Later that afternoon, an absurd thought — unworthy of the consistently high standards of New York electioneering — crept into my mind. Round about the week before the primaries, if the feeling of an upset were in the air, is it possible that some mysterious handbills might appear showing Cuomo in evident consort with black leaders? Handbills in places Queens and Bay Ridge?

*

In his three-piece black suit, white shirt, and blue-and-pink striped tie, the candidate looks as blandly respectable as he does on those television commercials that his brilliant media advisers have designed to make sure he gets absolutely no impulse votes from citizens attracted to lively irreverence. “You know,” he says inn his West 39th Street campaign headquarters — looking at a group of earnest young volunteers who have the invincibly innocent look of never having gazed on, or maybe even heard of, Meade Esposito — “you know how to analyze Koch’s political success so far?

One from the time he came into office in 1977,” Cuomo begins, “Koch was never seen as being responsible for the status quo. After all, the city was virtually bankrupt then. Before that, mayors had to deliver services. But from 1977 on, we felt so lucky to be alive that Koch wasn’t expected to do that. You see, his arrival as mayor coincided with the advent of an élan in the city. The kind of élan you feel when you go to the hospital and they tell you the growth on your lung isn’t going to kill you. Koch cooperated very nicely with that élan.

“But he was never held accountable for anything. All he had to do was express enough of the people so they’d vote for him. His job was to bring catharsis, and part of that catharsis was to make clear to those who voted for him that he knew how to take care of those others, the outsiders, them. He was not going to let them upset the white middle-class and working-class any more. Koch never said that explicitly, but that’s how he was perceived. And that’s why Koch is so popular in the suburbs now. The people in the suburbs now. The people in the suburbs don’t care much that he has failed to deliver services. What they like about Koch is that he put them down. And that he told off the unions.

“However, that’s changing, certainly in the city,” Cuomo is being emphatic. “People are beginning to think, ‘It’s nice to have a guy up there who’s saying exactly what I feel. But what about the subway? What about crime?’

“In other word,” the candidate looks rather gleeful, “Koch is getting to be perceived as an incumbent. There are a lot of things that he is responsible for that he finally has to answer for. And what can he do? He can only defend the status quo. The status quo that he made. Defending the status quo is the very definition of political vulnerability. That’s what brings down every politician.”

*

But what if the mayor proves not to be vulnerable after all? What the? What will Mario Cuomo do after his graceful, ruefully witty concession speech?

Back in 1977, the candidate told me: “I’m an ontologist, as you know. Everything is worth doing. Everything is good. Breathing is good. Sweating is good. Cursing is good. Crying is good. It’s all living. It’s all worth it.”

But is losing good? Is losing worth it? Well, Mario snapped back quickly enough in 1977. And now?

“Suppose you lose?”

There is a pause. A very long pause.

“Jesus, I don’t know. That frightens me. I don’t allow myself to think about it. I don’t allow myself to think about it even after losing the primaries.”

Another pause.

“If I fall, it means I won’t be in public service any more, and that leaves me with all unpleasant choices. I love the law, but I don’t want to practice for money. I don’t want to go back and make rich people richer — which is what I’d have to do in private practice. No, the only life for me — well, the best life for me — is public service. So yo understand why I don’t like to think about losing.”

The candidate takes a call, and I start talking to Haddad who has allowed himself a 20-second break from his phone. But I hear Cuomo saying something so logical that I fear for his peace of mind come November.

“One thing you do,” Cuomo is saying on the phone, “is give the guy who gets out of prison more than the 40 bucks they give him now and you make sure the state is responsible for getting him some kind of real job — funding it, if necessary, for a period of time. You realize the amount of taxpayer’s money that would save in the long run?”

The candidate sees me gawking at him.

“Yeah,” he says, “I’m not supposed to be able to say things like that. Professors with beards and pipes are supposed to say things like that. Not,” Cuomo grimaced, “somebody running for governor.”

Later that day, I run into a political operative who tells me what I’ve already heard several times. Koch is being touted for the vice-presidential slot on Mondale ticket, Of course, he’s got to beat Cuomo first.

If Mario is right, if people out there have a deep need to believe in something — people all over the country — could that something be Ed Koch?

*

Cuomo. Cuomo . . . I remembered Congressman Hugh Carey telling me, one night in the middle of an election we were both going to lose, about somebody he had wanted to run on a ticket with. “I got a genius nobody knows about,” Hughie was saying. “He’s a law professor at St. John’s. Brilliant son-of-a-bitch. Mario Cuomo. I begged him to run with me. Nobody knows him. The first time they ever hear of him, they’ll be right there in his hands.”

— Jimmy Breslin, 1974.

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