In December, 1985, Mario Cuomo was about to mark his second year as New York Governor, the beginning of what would be three terms in office. He sat down with the Voice for this interview that was published in the December 17, 1985 issue. Cuomo died on January 1, 2015 at age 82.
On Thursday, November 21, the Voice held the first of a series of luncheon meetings with prominent New Yorkers. Governor Mario Cuomo consented to be our first guest. Voice editors and writers had requested that the session be off-the-record, but, upon his arrival, the governor insisted that the proceedings be on he record. We offer the following excerpts from over two hours of discussion.
Nat Hentoff: I want to ask you something about civil liberties. Here comes Dr. David Axelrod talking about the real possibility, almost the imminent possibility, of going into hotel rooms with a warrant [looking for violations of the state health code]. Keeping aside for the moment the likelihood that that kind of action will lead to the bedroom in a home, leaving aside for the moment the Supreme Court decision to review the whole sodomy question…on what kind of probable cause do you operate?
Mario Cuomo: My understanding is that he very intelligently and objectively answered a question, saying, “Read the regulation.” And if you read the regulation, what it says is if this activity is promoted in a public place — whatever you call that public place — then it’s subject to the regulation. I’m sure that what he was saying is that we didn’t close bathhouses, and we didn’t close Plato’s Retreat-type places. We didn’t close any geography or habitat. We condemned an activity, wherever it is publicly promoted. His answer was designed to say that whether you call it a hotel, or a library, or a bathhouse, [if] it’s public and you’re taking money to encourage people to do this dangerous thing, you’re subject to the regulation. Would I send people into hotels? Of course not. Your notion that the bedroom is next — that’s hysterical. There is [an] enormous difference between private conduct and what you take money for. You want to go and whip yourself with chains and whips, God bless you. Marry a guy like you. Lock yourself up in your bedroom, don’t make too much noise, because if the neighbors hear, then you’re being intrusive. But if you can muffle your moans…
Richard Goldstein: There is a network of gay-owned hotels in this state —
Cuomo: I’ll take your word for it.
Goldstein: Thank you. Bed and breakfast places. They are in small towns; they are fragile establishments. They are places where people go, not for sex, but because they can’t show ordinary affection in the kinds of establishments you go to with to your wife. They are threatened by your regulations. In a town like Ghent, New York, the police chief has already been to the bed and breakfast and made inquiries. And what goes on in the bed and breakfast overnight is in violation of your guidelines. Because the sexual activities that are ordinary encounters in those hotels are in violation of your guidelines.
Cuomo: Let me come back to the purpose, okay? The original suggestion to me was that we close bathhouses. And the suggestion was that this is a place where there is gay intercourse — for want of a better description. And that is a dangerous activity, generically, and it ought to be prohibited. I said no two years ago to closing bathhouses. I said no this year. I said that I wouldn’t close bathhouses because constitutionally you can’t. Because morally, it doesn’t make any sense. What if they are giving baths in the bathhouses? How would I define a bathhouse? I would have to define it in terms of the activity I’m trying to prohibit. The activity that we’re trying to prohibit, the anal intercourse, the fellatio, whatever it is, and that’s not terribly relevant to me, because I didn’t make that judgment. I asked the scientists to tell me, “In your opinion, is there a sexual activity that is likely to spread this AIDS, which kills people — and has now made it into the whole population?” The scientists came back and said, “Yes. Anything that moves blood to blood or semen to blood.” And then I said, “I leave it to you to tell the governor how dangerous these activities are.” And the scientists came back and said, “They’re killing people.”
Goldstein: We may be in six months.
Cuomo: Then you’ll get a different answer from the governor in six months…We’ve tried very, very hard to avoid situations where the activity was regarded as gay activity exclusively. I suspect that when the Public Health Council added a heterosexual kind of activity, that’s one of the things they were trying to do as well. I did not ask them to do that. The day before the Public Health Council ruled, I had a press conference. I was asked over and over whether it weren’t a fact that I was talking about one kind of intercourse. I said no. I said that there are heterosexual activities that are involved. I said that I’m not even sure of vaginal intercourse. I’ll leave it to the scientists. The Public Health Council should consider it. I’m told that they did consider traditional vaginal intercourse. I know that there are people like Mathilde Krim who think it should have been included. I know that there are articles that say in Africa now traditional vaginal intercourse is a problem. The report I got from Dr. Axelrod is that they had no evidence that it was a problem. It has to be blood to blood, semen to blood, and because of the construction of the vagina, because of what nature has done in the vagina, it is simply not a problem. Now that was their judgment.
Goldstein: But I can send you documents from the American Medical Association…
Goldstein: You’ve got an opportunity to amend the regulations.
Cuomo: To do what?
Goldstein: To include vaginal intercourse, which would distinguish your regulation from the traditional definition of sodomy.
Cuomo: What does the documentation say about vaginal intercourse?
Goldstein: That there is documented proof that…
Cuomo: Did they show you the proof?
Goldstein: It’s in the journal of the American Medical Association. I’d be glad to share it with you.
Cuomo: Documented proof of what?
Goldstein: That AIDS is transmitted by vaginal intercourse, and when you understand that 50 per cent of the new cases involve drug users, you could see that this is not in the realm of remote possibility. There are logical documented reasons to suggest that this could be a dangerous act.
Cuomo: The Public Health Council said “no.” And it’s no. If they included fellatio…I can’t think of any reason why they would have left out vaginal intercourse if they are talking about places like Plato’s Retreat.
Goldstein: I was going to ask a broad question if I may, and then we can go on. In a few weeks you are going to be faced with a much more profound situation regarding AIDS, which is the question of mandatory testing — making a positive result on the test reportable to the state, and then authorizing contact tracing of sexual partners of everyone who tests positive. My information is that the CDC is going to encourage the states to do this. This seems to be in contradiction with the state policy of confidentiality on these tests. And it’s a much more profound question than the closing of the establishments. How do you feel about this issue?
On the other hand, we’re very generous in offering voluntary testing to people who want it on a no-name basis. At this moment I am very much opposed to mandatory testing. This isn’t the first time I have said that. I want to be clear with you. These complicated questions of privacy, etc., they are contextual. In the present context, as I understand it, I would not sacrifice the right of privacy in this state.
I’m impressed by the fact that the test isn’t conclusive. I’m impressed by the importance of privacy. I’m impressed by the fact that right now to suggest to somebody that you failed an AIDS test could ruin you forever. These are all important considerations.
Pete Hamill: Governor, isn’t there a consideration also for a woman who might marry a guy with AIDS; the children who might be born with AIDS?
Cuomo: Yes, but fortunately, they can take care of themselves.
Hammil: An infant being born can take care…
Cuomo: No, a woman about to get married can say to the guy, I have a serious concern you might have AIDS. So do me a favor, go take a test. This is something we can work privately. You have to remember too that the test doesn’t tell you all that much.
A Cheerleader for Koch?
Wayne Barrett: Who is the most important black in your administration and what public policy decisions has he impacted on?
Cuomo: They are all important. There is no way of telling what public policy anybody in my administration impacts. They are involved in everything. We all participate. I’m very eclectic about the way we use our experience and wisdom.
Barrett: Are you satisfied with the black presence within your administration?
Cuomo: No, I’m not satisfied. Of course not. I’d like to have more. I think the record shows that we’ve appointed more blacks, more Hispanics than any governor in history by far. But still, not nearly enough.
Barrett: This political year, you wound up endorsing the mayor and talking in the third person about “people who once raised criticism about his race record” as if you had never raised them yourself.
Cuomo: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Barrett: This was on Newsmakers. You said, “they used to say,”…”they have said” that he hasn’t gotten along well with blacks, but now is his opportunity to show that he can in fact work well with minorities, and so forth. In addition to Koch, you were very helpful to Stein, appointing him to the commission on the elderly. And I believe you are now involved in a fund-raiser to pay off his campaign debt. You chose not to endorse Al Vann in Brooklyn. Do these decisions that you’ve been making in terms of local politics have anything to do with either your 1986 race or the possibility of a 1988 race?
Barrett: What explains them?
Cuomo: Intelligence, judgment, wisdom, fairness, history…
Barrett: Why have you become almost a cheerleader for Koch among black leaders?
Cuomo: I’m not a cheerleader.
Barrett: You’ve spoken to black leaders, you’ve tried to round up black support.
Cuomo: And I’ll continue to do that. When I endorsed Koch, I said specifically to David Garth, [that] I will not endorse the mayor on the basis of his record. That doesn’t mean anything. I would like to be able to endorse the mayor and say that the mayor has an opportunity to unify this city the way it has never been unified before. He has an opportunity to do that because he has been attacked on this subject. You have a unique opportunity to bring this town together. And Ed, if I can stand up with you, and commit you and I to that together, I’ll do it. He said, “I’m eager to do it.” I went to the steps of City Hall and made exactly that statement.
I also went to David Dinkins and Al Vann, both of whom I like and know and respect. And I said here are your choices. You can believe this is cynical of the mayor, and do nothing about it. Or you can believe that it’s real, and join with him. Maybe he means it. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Maybe he really does want to bring the town together. You can stand back out for four years and take shots at him. It won’t get you another housing unit, it won’t get anybody a job in your community — and it probably won’t make you any stronger politically. What have you achieved?
Make your speeches, write your statements, don’t change a single thing you believe or other. But join with this man and see if you can’t get something done. That’s my position. I think it’s going to work. I think Koch is trying and I think he’ll try harder. And now that he’s made a commitment to me, and I have made one with him, I’ll be around to assist, too.
From Conservative to Arch-Liberal
Jack Newfield: Governor, I’d like to ask a broader philosophical question. The Democratic party has only won one national election since 1964. Many people are now trying to redesign the national Democratic Party, arguing that either the rhetoric or the program or the images are out of touch with the ordinary people in the country. I would like to know whether you agree that the Democratic Party is obligated to move back toward the center. And as a part of that question, what is your position on Gramm-Rudman and aid to the Contras?
Cuomo: I started my political career in 1974. The first speech I ever gave was the New Democratic Coalition (NDC). I got a terrific reception; zero votes. The only candidate ever to have gone to the NDC and never gotten a single vote. I didn’t get one vote for lieutenant governor. Why? Well, that same year the Liberal Party wouldn’t talk to me and the Post wouldn’t interview me. Why? Because I was an ethnic Catholic — big hands, looked like a bodyguard.
[In my] speech to the NDC, I said that a lot of you people who call yourselves Liberals — through your moralizing — have driven a lot of people like my mother to the right. You’ve come to the middle class — people like my mother and father who broke their tush to get into the middle class — and you said, “You’re committing sin because you’re not going enough for the people under you.” Now my mother and father don’t understand that talk. If you said to them, “Look, it’s intelligent for you to help the people you left behind in South Jamaica because…” But what you’re doing is driving them over to the right, and you’re going to wind up with the rich and the middle class together, and with the heavy hammer they forge out of that coalition they are going to beat the poor to death. That was my speech. I have made that speech for 11 years. In those days I was a conservative. Now I’m an arch-liberal. The same position. I haven’t changed a single position on the death penalty, on abortion, on aid to education — on anything. So, when you ask me “Where should the Democratic Party be?” I don’t know where they should be. I know where I am. And I haven’t changed much.
I think where I am is closer to traditional Democratic politics than traditional Republican politics. I think the big difference is that we believe that government has an obligation that goes beyond allowing talented people to profit from their talent. We believe the government has an obligation to those people who the free enterprise system will never reach. Because they are too old, too frail, or because there simply is no job even in a perfect free enterprise [system]. I believe that government has an aggressive affirmative obligation to reach out to the disaffiliated. Women happen to have been left out. If you’ve kept people in chains for 200 years, whether they were brown, green, black, or from another planet — you have an obligation to them. I see that as an affirmative obligation.
On the other hand, when it comes to privacy, despite the bathhouses, etc., I don’t have the same kind of confidence in government. I don’t have confidence in government’s ability to make moral judgments. Ronald Reagan stood up and said this is a Christian nation — and I got frightened. I’m a Catholic. You’re telling me that this is a Christian nation? What kind of Christian? What if the next guy is an atheist? It becomes an atheist nation?
On the question of whether the Democrats should move…we didn’t lose in ’84. A philosophy didn’t lose. Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan. Just ask yourself if it had been Gary Hart against George Bush and both sides said exactly the same things, would you have gotten swamped? Of course not.
Newfield: In no election since ’64 have the Democrats carried the white male vote.
Cuomo: That has not been because the Democratic philosophy failed. The McGovern philosophy was different than the Mondale philosophy. Look at the Mondale platform. It wasn’t a superliberal platform by any means.
Newfield: Is it possible the Democrats were not liberal enough? And that was the problem with Mondale?
Cuomo: The big problem with our politics is it has become label-driven. People think in terms of liberal and conservative and attach all kinds of sequelae that don’t exist. That’s why I talk all the time about progressive pragmatism. Just to create another label — to make people come off these bromides and get to something where they have to analyze again. The second point is whether Gramm-Rudman…and what was the other issue you had?
Newfield: Aid to the Contras.
Newfield: What about aid to Contras?
Cuomo: Nicaragua, I’m not too good. I’m no expert on foreign policy issues. And I don’t like talking a lot on them. What is your question about Nicaragua?
Newfield: Whether you favor, either through the CIA or any other agency, financial subsidies to the counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua.
Cuomo: I’m going to pass on that.
Hentoff: There is a further dimension to Jack’s question. Many of the governors, many of the people who are state chairmen, want to go back and put the Democratic Party in a kind of a bland center. As someone who is not going to be running for president next time, can you be in a position to do something about that?
Ellen Willis: I’d like to ask a larger question on the theme of loss of corporations. One of the biggest problems in terms of workers’ attempts to organize and unions’ attempts to protect some of their gains [is] that corporations [can say] “Do what we want or we’ll move to the south, or to Taiwan.” This is especially relevant to a state like New York, which does require a lot of public services to keep cities going, and which also has a tradition of workers making a decent standard of living. I would like to know if you would support legislation to limit [a] corporation’s right to move wherever they please…to lay off whomever they please — at any time.
Cuomo: Frank Barbaro, who is a very good friend of mine, comes up with runaway shop legislation every year. The objective is desirable. It is the same objective I have with the corporate takeover bill. Do I want to discourage people from running away? Of course I do. The question is whether a bill would protect the jobs — or simply discourage business from coming here. My conclusion is that if I said to corporations, “Hey look, you do business in my state, you have to give me six months notice before you move out, then you have to give everybody severance pay,” they just wouldn’t come. It would be self-defeating.
Maria Laurino: Your Department of Social Services has recently supported a new plan, the Employment Opportunities Program, [which would] mostly affect welfare mothers. The idea is to train people to get jobs, but there is no new money allocated for this program, and no money for institutionalized day care. Since it predominantly affects mothers, and there’s [also] no money for jobs…how do you envision this program working?
Cuomo: You can’t do this thing without money. I don’t like the word workfare. Whatever it means literally, it has come to imply requiring a welfare person to do public jobs just to prove that they are willing to make a contribution to the common weal in return for their check, they are not ripping you off. I don’t like that kind of workfare. I prefer situations where you get the welfare population into more productive kinds of activity…[that] allow for the possibility that we can break this welfare cycle. That this person can become self-sustaining on a long-term basis instead of just mopping the floors for six months. But, if you teach her how to run a computer, if you teach her how to do a job, and she can supply her own subsistence — that’s fine. That’s what we’re trying to do. I’ll also tell you that we are in perfect sync with the population. One of the ugliest stereotypes is that the welfare population doesn’t want to work. That’s a lot of baloney. They are eager to work. Will this cost money? Of course. How much? I don’t know how much. It’s an investment. But you can’t do it without money.
Laurino: But that’s what your department has said. That they’re just going to take existing funds and redistribute…
Cuomo: That’s not important. I’m the governor.
Sounds Like Trickle-Down
Stanley Crouch: The three epidemic problems in New York City for black people and Hispanic people are teenage pregnancies, street crime, and burgeoning illiteracy. What kind of overall plan do you have for dealing with these things?
Cuomo: There is no overall plan. The notion that you can sketch out some conceptual approach — it’s not like that. We could talk forever about it. Let my just race through some notions. How do you deal with the problem of teenage pregnancy? What we want is a government that will provide you with as many of options as possible. Example: Family planning. If you attempted to have a child because you think this is your only way to dignity we can give you a job, we can educate you. Maybe we can broaden your horizons.
Housing is very important. A lot of these people are homeless. Why? Because you don’t have housing. Employment. You have to do everything you can to generate employment opportunities. Not for government. Rockefeller tried that and nearly bankrupted us. We need private sector employment. That’s why I cut the taxes. I didn’t cut the taxes so businessmen could wear pinky rings. I cut the taxes so that people could get jobs in the city; so that businesses stay here. I cut taxes not because I think the rich people have to be taken care of. But because I think the poor people have to be taken care of. Sounds like trickle-down if you want to be cynical, but it’s not that. The truth is that when you went to 15 per cent income tax in this state, you drove business out. It was self-defeating. So you’ve got to do jobs, you’ve got to do education. We’re pumping a fortune into education. Sometimes I wonder where it goes.
As to drugs, if you had to pick one subject that I am most frustrated by, it would have to be drugs. Take drugs and AIDS. IV users start by killing themselves. So you can’t get to them by saying, “Hey, if you do this you’re going to kill yourself.” They know that. “If you pass this needle…” They know that when they stick the needle in their arm. I don’t know what we do about the drug problem. You can’t get at it by law enforcement. We made the most draconian laws in the universe, the Rockefeller laws — they were a disaster. In the end it is a spiritual problem, a psychic problem, it’s an intellectual problem. If they want to take drugs they will and I don’t know how to get at that. I don’t know how you teach a generation not to try it.
You ask for a plan. The closest I can come is [that] you have to have a government that starts with a proposition that it is a problem, that it can be dealt with — and that it must be dealt with. That’s the plan. The Republican government in Washington doesn’t admit it’s a problem. [Have you ever] heard President Reagan stand up and say we have a problem? Even to give you a phony response? Their whole approach is to deny that there’s a problem.
Abortion and Moral Law
Willis: I’d like to ask a question about abortion. You have consistently taken the position that while you’re personally opposed to abortion, the law is the law and you’ll enforce the law. What I’d like to know is: Are you prepared to use your authority — your legal, moral, whatever authority you have — and leadership to defend women’s right to abortion against attempts to overthrow or water down the law? If Roe v. Wade were to be overturned…
Cuomo: Roe v. Wade as I understand it says that on scientific proof they had, until a certain point in time they thought that a woman had an unfettered choice. Beyond that point in time, she no longer had an unfettered choice. This was a scientific judgment. If you’re telling me now that the Supreme Court may come back at a later time and say, “Instead of this many months, it’s this many months,” would I stand up and condemn that? I don’t know.
Willis: I’m just asking. I feel that women have a right to control their own fertility, and that…
Cuomo: What does that mean? Until when? Nine months? Should a woman who has carried a child for nine months have the right to an abortion just because she’s changed her mind?
Willis: As long as the fetus is still inside the mother…
Cuomo: Even at nine months?
Cuomo: I don’t agree. If it’s nine months, I’m not going that far. If you’re telling me you believe…
Willis: I’m just asking you how far are you going.
Cuomo: No. You’re asking me to be specific. I was specific. You didn’t like the answer. If it’s nine months, I don’t agree. You’re asking for a pledge of allegiance to your particular sensitivity on this issue. I don’t give that to anybody. I don’t make judgments that way.
Willis: With all due respect, there are very few abortions in the ninth month. I don’t think that’s the basic issue.
Cuomo: But it’s interesting that you answered that women should have that right. I happen to disagree with you.
Willis: Fine, that’s your privilege. I’m simply asking how far you are willing to go beyond…
Cuomo: I don’t know. What’s the case?
Willis: Beyond the simple statement that you’re willing to enforce the law.
Cuomo: Madame, what is the case? How far would you go?
Willis: I am pretty much of an absolutist on this issue.
Cuomo: You can’t be pretty much of an absolutist. Are you an absolutist? How far would you go? Would you go to nine months?
Willis: I think that as long as the fetus is inside the woman’s…
Cuomo: Even nine months?
Willis: But I think that this is a really hypothetical…
Cuomo: That’s my point, madame. You’re asking me to answer it, but you won’t.
Willis: I answered it and I said…
Cuomo: Oh, nine months? I disagree with you.
Willis: The thing that I’m asking is, beyond the legalism of “I’ll enforce the law,” would you be willing to exercise leadership against the Right’s attempts to overthrow or water down the law?
Cuomo: I’m not evasive because I have a record. What law requires me to approve of Medicaid funding? Can you think of one? Moral law perhaps.
Willis: I think you’ve been good on the issue of Medicaid funding.
Cuomo: But my point is, I don’t do that because of Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade didn’t say anything about Medicaid funding. I’m not being cute with you. I think you’ve made the point for me. You have great difficulty describing all the hypotheticals. And so do I. What you want — and I understand it because I get the question all the time on a whole variety of subjects: “Could you ever conceive of…” “What we want you to say, Governor…[is] there is no possibility you would ever in any way at all say anything other than the woman has a right?” I’m not going to tell you that because I don’t believe that.
You wouldn’t really say that in nine months, when the doctor says all I have to do is reach in and pull that child out — it absolutely is alive, but you have now panicked and you don’t want it so I’m gonna reach in there and strangle it — you wouldn’t let that happen. That’s a horrible, ugly, terrible thought, but you’re asking me to construct all of them and answer them all. I can’t do that and won’t. I’ll deal with it as it occurs. My record — everybody can judge me on my record.
Still for Westway
D. D. Guttenplan: How would you like to see the [Westway trade-in] monies be spent, and now that you’ve seen reason on Westway, what hope do we have that…
Cuomo: I did not see reason. I disagree with you more fundamentally now that before. You have argued for years as though it were mass transit or these roads — and that’s a lot of baloney. If you want to prove it to yourself go back to Dick Ravitch’s report. Go back to Tom Puccio’s report. [They both] came out for trade-in, but in both cases those reports got down to a basic question — my question. I’m all for the trade-in if you guarantee me the money the way I have it guaranteed for the road. In both cases those reports said [that] while you can’t do it under the present law, you, Governor (or you, Lieutenant Governor), could go down to Washington and change the law. That’s the end of their argument.
Guttenplan: If I gave you $2 billion to buy something you didn’t want, are you arguing that you should buy it anyway?
Cuomo: No. Can I try again? Maybe I don’t argue well. [You get] $2 billion to build a road underground. You get 90 acres of parks, you get a new incinerator, you get all sorts of new acreage that we didn’t have before, you get a whole new waterfront, OK? Now, I told everybody from 1972 on that if you gave me the money free, I’d spend it differently. I would have spent more on low- and middle-income housing; I would’ve filled potholes in Queens. If you gave me $2 billion and said, Governor, spend it any way you want, I would have done a road. A small road — and I would have spent the money elsewhere. Mass transit, of course, because we could still use some capital money in that…But that was never the question.
What are we doing now? One-point-two of 1.7 billion dollars will be mass transit. Sounds great, right? Bob Kiley said, “How much of that money can I count on?” I said, “None, Bob.” Maybe 150 next year…Al D’Amato is running, we made a deal. I’m very grateful to Al, he did a terrific job. Really, I think you’re so dumb. You wrote editorial after editorial; you excoriated all of us for being pro-real estate and you were for the little people who rode the subways. Now they’re gonna get sketa.
Guttenplan: But they were going to get bubkes before.
Cuomo: Who was gonna get bubkes? You mean all those people who would have been laborers? All those carpenters? All the people who would have been using shovels?
Guttenplan: The people in the subways.
Cuomo: All that economic activity — $2 billion worth. We have $8 billion for the subway. Bob Kiley hasn’t written a plan on how to spend that yet. Two billion dollars worth of work and you’re telling me that people would have gotten nothing.