News & Politics

Cuomo Rising: Will New York’s Great Smart Hope Run for Mayor?

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The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in the the April 18, 1977 edition of the Village Voice, as Mario Cuomo was campaigning for Mayor of New York City. He lost the race to Ed Koch.


At Hopper’s, a jazz spa on lower Sixth Avenue, I ask Bella Abzug to free associate. “What comes to your mind when you hear the name Mario Cuomo?”

Bella pauses, and then smiles broadly — the invincible smile of a clean-up hitter being asked about the spindly new utility infielder.

“Well, now,” says Bella, “who’s he?”

Later I ask Dr. Kenneth Clark, that perennial, implacable minority presence on the state board of regents who refuses to concede the demise of civil rights. “Cuomo?” says Clark. “I hear he’s a nice guy. Unfortunately, however, being black in a racist society means being fixated on certain things. Accordingly, every time I see or hear Cuomo’s name, I think of the ‘compromise’ he was responsible for in that Forest Hills low-income housing project. I do not see it as a compromise. It was a sellout of the blacks.”

On the other hand there is Ramsey Clark, who is almost invariably on the same side of public issues as Dr. Kenneth Clark. But when Ramsey thinks of Mario Cuomo, what comes to his mind is “an unusually wise, sensitive, strong man who’d be effective in just about any public office. Mario knows himself. He is his own person.”

At the opposite end of the Democratic Party spectrum from Ramsey Clark is doughty Matty Troy, who insists that Mario now would be a sure winner because he is “so far above the other candidates.”

But for a long time, Mario Cuomo has been maintaining that he is not running for mayor. Many people — from his friend Jack Newfield to Cuomo’s employer, Hugh Carey — have kept urging him to declare. And Cuomo has kept answering that while he indeed might want to run, his wife, Matilda, is wholly opposed, and Mario has promised her that he will not go against her wishes. “This is not a case,” says Ramsey Clark, “of a politician using his family for a tactical delaying action, knowing that his wife will not really oppose something he wants when the time comes. Mario did make the promise, and being Mario, he will keep it.”

The Cuomos have five children, the youngest of whom is seven days a week. “It was terrible,” Matilda recalls, six. For years, when he was practicing law, Cuomo worked. “The older kids hardly saw him at all, and it was only because Mario’s father came over to help that I was able to get to church on Sundays.” Now Mario works only six days a week — as Hugh Carey’s secretary of state. But as mayor, Matilda Cuomo knows, “there is no way he would be able to find any time for us. It’s a horrendous job. Oh, I am so torn. The younger children need him, especially the six year old. It wouldn’t be fair to them. And yet Mario is so far ahead of the other candidates. It’s a deep problem we have.”

Whether or not Cuomo runs for mayor, he has become the most intriguing political presence in the city and state. It may well be that Cuomo will never “excite” the citizenry in the calliope manner Bella Abzug does. But gradually, and without any media specialist to manufacture it for him, he is creating an “image” of himself as a singularly thoughtful and truthful public figure so hooked on self-respect he would find it impossible to sell out. At the same time, his irreverent sense of humor seems to prevent him — however righteous he tries to be — from becoming self-righteous.

To put a different accent on what Bella asks, “Who is he?” And why all this heady political speculation now about a man who has only once run for elective office — in the 1974 Democratic primary race for lieutenant governor — and was resoundingly defeated? Why is Cuomo being so ardently importuned in 1977 when hardly anyone of note and clout appeared to care about his civic future three years ago?

“Because,” I am told by a political speculator with ties to both reform and regular cadres, “it’s time for a mayor with character. In an emergency, you go for class. All Cuomo has to do is declare. Once the electorate gets to know him, he can’t lose.”

The Cuomo Phenomenon

I am skeptical, being almost certain that paragons are an extinct species, particularly in politics. And in the course of this exploration of the Cuomo phenomenon, I have tried to find discrepancies, large and small, between image and reality. It has turned out to be quite a difficult undertaking.

This year the invitations have come — from the Times, the Daily News, Rupert Murdoch, and Newsday. Would Mr. Cuomo come see — and be seen by — the editors? They are not inviting him because he is secretary of state. For all Cuomo’s disclaimers, he might become mayor. Or something. Surely something.

When Cuomo visited the Times, one of the more pietistic members of that paper’s hierarchy asked Cuomo why he is so negative about Percy Sutton’s chances.

“Because there are more bigots than blacks in the city,” says the secretary of state.

The questioner flushes, and says with some passion that “the people in this town are better than that.” Cuomo, suddenly aware that he is close to being called a bigot himself for having told the truth, confronts the man from the Times. “I know this city. I’ve lived here all my life. Where do you live?”

“Scarsdale.” The subject is dropped.

“I suppose it was out of place for me to react to him that way,” Cuomo said later. “He probably thought, ‘Just like an Italian, this Cuomo speaks too loud and too much.’ But one thing I try to do is not deceive myself.”

The short, unhappy dialogue at the Times can be linked with Cuomo’s first public appearance as a rookie politician in 1973. He was known as the besieged architect of the scaled-down Forest Hills compromise; and he had worked from 1966 to 1972 as counsel for the owners of 69 homes in Corona which the city fully intended to deracinate in favor of a new high school and adjoining ball fields. Against seemingly hopeless odds Cuomo doggedly weaved through the bureaucracy and forced and city into an agreement that saved nearly all the homes and thereby the core of the Italian community in Corona.

Having pulled off a near miracle in Corona and having at least “settled” Forest Hills without the help of state troopers, Cuomo was eyed by the politicians in 1973. And so he came one night to Matty Troy’s club in Queens Village, on the same bill with Congressman Ed Koch, who was running for mayor on a beat-crime-over-the-head platform. What could Cuomo say about crime that was different?

“You’ve got all these blacks and Puerto Ricans down in South Jamaica where I was born and raised,” Cuomo began. “You think they’re all bad because they’re the ones who are coming up here mugging and raping you and breaking into your houses. And you’re saying, ‘We don’t want them in our neighborhoods. We don’t want them anywhere near us. Leave them where they are. They should all die.’

“Well, the net result of that attitude is their poverty will get worse and they’ll produce more muggers and rapists. The truth is we can’t get far enough away from them to be safe.

Much puzzlement in the audience. What the hell is he saying? Surrender?

“Okay,” said lawyer Cuomo, having established the logical foundation for his argument. “The liberals come and tell you that it’s our moral obligation to help those people because we oppressed them — the blacks anyway — for 400 years. That’s what John Lindsay told you, right? However, here in Queens, how can I tell my father that? My father who for so many years had a grocery store in South Jamaica. In that store he never punished a black or hurt a black or enslaved a black. If you tell him about his ‘moral obligation,’ he won’t know what you’re talking about. Here’s what you have to say to my father. Whether you love them or not, whether you have an obligation to them or not, is between you and God. When you go to confession on a Saturday, talk to the priest about it. But unless you do something about where they are now, how they live now, they will continue to come into your neighborhoods and mug and rape.”

Cuomo was silent for a moment and then, looking straight at the audience in Matty Troy’s club, he said, “Where are you going to next? Wyandanch? Then where? Montauk? You know what’s going to happen? In time, they’ll be three miles away from Montauk and your daughter is going to get caught because next is the water and it’s all over. You can’t run forever. You have to find ways to break up segregated neighborhoods. And most of all,” Cuomo pounded on the table, “you have to find ways to get them jobs. Real Jobs. And that, in part, means electing people who will really do that. Remember, we have to do this because we love ourselves, not because we love them. In the end, the only thing that works is self-interest.”

That basic Cuomo speech was hardly heard elsewhere in the city because Cuomo’s campaign was soon scuttled by buccaneer Matty Troy’s swerve to the right (Biaggi). But Cuomo is making that speech again in 1977, including at a gathering in Queens a couple of weeks ago. He is also saying how strange, how unreal, it is that there seems to be a general unwillingness to recognize the fact that there will be a nonwhite majority in New York City in a generation. The public school population, he adds, is already two-thirds black and Hispanic.

“They are not going to go away,” Cuomo says. “It used to be said that the Jews and the Irish and the Italians and the Poles were going to kill the city if they stayed and grew. But they didn’t go away either. The difference was that although there was crime among those people because they were poor, there wasn’t as much. The Italians, the Jews, the others, came from a culture of work and discipline. The poor in the city now are born into a culture of nonwork. Jimmy Breslin’s novel World Without End, Amen is marvelously revealing for that very reason. He makes utterly clear that whether you’re a black child or an Irish brat, if you’re born third-generation-on-the-dole, you’re going to have a crippled psyche. That’s what we’ve allowed to happen in this city, and we’ve permitted it to go on so long that some of the kids, God forbid, may be cripped permanently.”

On a wall at the the huge secretary of state’s office across from City Hall where he works from eight in the morning when he is not in Albany, is Holbein’s portrait of Saint Thomas More. “A fascinating figure,” says Cuomo, looking toward the religious scholar and powerful minister of state until Henry VIII cut him down. “A man of great principle, and yet didn’t go rushing to meet death. He tried to keep his life and his principles. And that is evidence of his humanity.”

I was still thinking of what Cuomo had been saying about the inescapable coming of the nonwhite majority in New York City. Stressing that theme won’t get him beheaded, but it could get him into trouble, I said. Is that why the other candidates, actual and putative, don’t mention what’s coming?

“They don’t talk about what’s coming,” Cuomo said, “because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of stirring up the fears of those who, if told the city’s going black and Puerto Rican, see a city full of muggers and rapists. And they’re afraid that if they saw what I said in Queens, they’ll be misunderstood by yet another constituency. You see, they don’t have the advantages I’ve had. I was brought up in a neighborhood that was Italian, black, German, Irish, Polish. Most of us poor or nearly poor. A good start for being able to talk without fear to all kinds of people. And since then, I’ve touched a lot of other bases. A big advantage — a very big advantage — was who my father was.”

God’s Delights for Man

Andrea Cuomo and his wife, Immaculata, came to America from Salerno, just outside Naples, in the late 1920s. Illiterate, the elder Cuomo found work cleaning trenches in New Jersey. “Actually,” says his son, “they were sewers.” Somehow Andrea Cuomo saved enough to open a grocery store in South Jamaica. Staffed by the family, including Mario, the store was open 24 hours a day. The father, a small but strong man, never delivered homilies to his children about how they should live their lives. His own, it turned out, was and is exemplary enough. He gave respect, and so received it. He was honest, passionately devoted to his family, and so consumed by the work ethic that, his son remembers, “he had callouses on both hands and once I saw him literally bleed from the bottom of his feet.” A man of hard-earned dignity, in sum, because he more than survived in what was at first so strange and forbidding a land.

“That’s one reason,” Mario Cuomo says, “why I don’t understand those who say, usually privately, that there is no hope for this city. I think of my parents, and probably yours too, when they were coming here. If they had sat down and calculated the odds, it seems to me they would have turned back or maybe even have jumped off the ship. Yet look at what they were able to accomplish here. So who are we to say that we cannot now manage the affairs of the city of New York?”

From his father Cuomo learned both tenacity and also, as he puts it, “God’s delights for man.” You work, then you can enjoy. “Oh, the Genoa salami and the prosciutto and the bread!” the secretary of state remembers the South Jamaica grocery store. “The long bread. The seeded bread. Hot from the ovens of Lanzone, the baker down the block. The bread dipped in fresh, cold milk. And the glory of the fresh fruit. Handfuls of ripe, red Bing cherries. Fresh peaches, juicy plums, tart Italian prunes.”

And when Andrea Cuomo decided at last that he could take one morning a week off from the store — Sunday — he and his family would eat these delights of God on the beach. “My father would bite a piece of grass or splash us kids, and show us the beautiful things that God has made. No college professor or ecologist or liberal politician has ever taught me more,” says Mario Cuomo, “about the need for conservation, guarding against pollution, and preserving the open spaces than my father did on those Sunday mornings.”

There came, however, a betrayal by Mario Cuomo of this instructive father. He had been going to public school, but saw a chance to take the entrance examination to St. John’s Preparatory School. He failed, and without telling his parents, Mario went to ask the dean if he could try again. The dead, intrigued that the youngster had come to plead his case all by himself, let Cuomo in — on probation. The boy proceeded to get all As, win a scholarship, and become a star on the baseball and basketball teams. He also became aware of prejudice. “Most of the kids in the school,” Cuomo says, “were of the Irish ‘elite.’ You see, in those years, to be a Catholic was to be an Irish Catholic. Italians were something else, something not as good.”

The boy would not bring his parents to St. John’s Preparatory School to meet the teachers and to be seen by his schoolmates. “I didn’t like those kids,” Cuomo says, “but I didn’t want them to know that my parents didn’t speak English well.” The Irish kids’ parents, after all, had no trouble with the language. “I could cry now, thinking of how I didn’t want them to come,” Cuomo says. “The anguish of that recollection,” he told a luncheon meeting of an Italian club in Buffalo two years ago, “teaches me all I need to know about ethnic self-hate and the melting-pot myth and what it means to deny a heritage.”

Cuomo has not denied that heritage since, often mentioning his father in speeches and being as manifestly proud of his roots as Alex Haley. Active in the affairs of the Catholic Interracial Council of New York, Cuomo also straightens out those who would defame Italians. But he has never heard a more passionate speech on discrimination against Italians than during a meeting of the 69 Corona homeowners when they were under relentless siege by the city of New York. One of the homeowners rose and said with rising fury: “There are people out there who don’t like us because we’re Italians. They think we’re bums. They think we don’t work. Imagine, that they think we don’t work! Look at these hands. Look at these callouses. And what’s WORSE,” he was shaking his fist, “THEY CALL US MAFIA! WE OUGHT TO BREAK THEIR FUCKING LEGS.”

The Real High

Mario Cuomo went from St. John’s Prep to St John’s College and St. John’s University law school (summa from the college, cum laude from the law school). While still in college, he had been signed in 1951 to a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates — a contract changed on the insistence of his father to mandate that Mario must first finish school. Pirates’ general manager Branch Rickey agreed, praising the judgment of the elder Cuomo and permitting Mario to train only in the summer until he had his degree. The baseball career became academic, however, when Mario, hit in the head by a ball, suffered a blood clot. The law had gained a center fielder whom a Pirates’ scout had earlier described as a “graceful plus fielder…and a plus runner…who will run over you if you get in his way.” Hitting? Below average but “with plus power.” What kind of guy is he? “Not an easy chap to get close to but is very well liked by those who succeed in penetrating the exterior shell.”

Admitted to the bar in 1956, Cuomo spent two years as confidential legal assistant to Judge Adrian Burke of the New York State Court of Appeals, an experience which led to his later becoming an expert in appellate work, among other fields of the law, in his own Brooklyn-based firm, Corner, Finn, Cuomo & Charles. (From 1963 to 1975, Cuomo, striving mightily to avoid having any spare time, was also on the faculty of the St. John’s University law school.)

Upon becoming secretary of state in January 1975 Cuomo left his law firm, and the withdrawal pains are still evident, for he finds the law endlessly, almost sensually, absorbing. In speeches to lawyers these nights, Cuomo likes to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes’s comment that the law places its servitors in a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which confronts a dying man. But Cuomo is as exhilarated by the concentrated solitude of legal research and analysis as he is by the intense clash of minds that follows the preparation. “The real high,” he says as he mourns its loss, “is in the excitement of the trial or the oral argument. You’re totally immersed. You don’t feel anything. It’s like spraining your ankle in the middle of a ballgame and not knowing how badly hurt you are until the time out is called.”

While he was a lawyer, however, Cuomo became increasingly intrigued by another kind of combat — jousting in the slippery, mendacious, merciless political arena. Cuomo says that he was almost morally forced to try for political office because, having worked against the bureaucracy from the outside — in such community battles as Corona’s — he felt obligated to find out if he could do more for the greater good from inside government. Maybe so, but another factor is Cuomo’s competitiveness, from his youth as a fiercely contending athlete to his delight in the adversary nature of the law. Cuomo likes to test himself in battle, and he surely likes to win. For Cuomo, politics was a natural next stage. In 1974, after an inconsequential testing of the mayoralty waters the year before, he ran for lieutenant governor.

What happened is a classic political epic, a tale to embolden the virtuously stubborn while making summer soldiers squirm. It also reveals much about Mario Cuomo.

The impetus for Cuomo to run came from Adam Walinsky, one-time close associate of Robert Kennedy and still an occasional caustic participant in state and national politics.

Encouraged by Walinsky, Cuomo took some soundings around the state and concluded he had a chance. An initial discord, however, was sounded by Matty Troy who told Cuomo he could not support him because “the boys” in Queens were complaining that Cuomo had not been active enough in a political club. Cuomo’s work in Corona and Forest Hills? Not good enough. Besides, he had not loyally inched his way up the ladder of the deserving. Cuomo had not even been a state assemblyman.

Undaunted, Cuomo came to the convention in Niagara Falls where he found the reigning powers had decreed John LaFalce — then in the state legislature and currently a congressman from Buffalo — was to be the officially designated candidate for lieutenant governor. The deal had been orchestrated by upstate party leader Joe Crangle. It was all over, as a veteran political reporter for Newsday told Cuomo. “No way you can get this thing.”

By one in the morning on the day of the voting Cuomo’s room was awash in gloom. Jimmy Breslin, his long-time friend, insisted that Cuomo not even go on stage and make a speech. Why should he make an ass of himself? “No,” said Cuomo, “if I’m going to be beaten, it ought to be out there on the floor. I never walked off the field in the eighth inning in my life. Besides, I have my wife and daughter here. What do I tell them?”

The pressure on Cuomo to skip the ninth inning continued until dawn, but the sure loser would not yield. A few hours later, Matty Troy arrived and told Cuomo that the party chieftains had decided to allow him to run for the United States Senate.

“You mean,” said Cuomo, both furious and amused, “that I’m not capable of running for lieutenant governor because I haven’t ‘served’ enough, but it’s okay for me to go for senator because you know I’m going to lose. No, there’s something else going on here, too. You’re afraid I might hurt you. How can I hurt you? The only way would be for me to go to the convention and make an anti-boss speech. But I’m not going to do that because I sought the support of the bosses.”

Cuomo turned down the offer, adding that he would not compete for the Senate nomination because he believed that Al Lowenstein and Ramsey Clark were better qualified for the job than he was. Matty Troy was most mistrustful of that response, as were the other party bosses — none of them ever having heard anything like it before.

Before Cuomo left, however, the vote for lieutenant governor was about to begin. Adam Walinsky phoned the platform and asked for a delay until the bedraggled Cuomo troops had time to enter the arena. As Cuomo arrived, various labor and political figures festooned him with their condolences. Al Lowenstein, on the other hand, rushed up, kissed Cuomo on the cheek in gratitude for Cuomo’s heresy in turning down the Senate nomination, urged their mutual friend God to bless Cuomo, and hurried over to the Brooklyn caucus. Lowenstein had asked Meade Esposito, feudal lord of the Brooklyn Democrats, for a chance to plead his own case for the Senate. Esposito gave him 10 minutes; but Lowenstein, both greatly enthusiastic and infinitely knowledgeable about his subject, took 50 minutes. That was the turning point for Cuomo.

Meanwhile, on the floor, the voting for lieutenant governor had begun. Statesmen Joe Crangle and Matty Troy suddenly realized that the Brooklyn delegation was not on the floor. They did not know it was still ensorceled elsewhere by the Lowenstein theme-and-variations. Upon seeing the empty chairs, Crangle and Troy sensed that Meade Esposito was spinning some kind of mysterious conspiracy to make them look foolish. Or, as Troy elegantly put it in the heat of bewilderment, “Those guineas are trying to screw us!”

Crangle and Troy thereupon pulled John LaFalce’s candidacy, and on the third ballot Mario Cuomo, with some 65 per cent of the vote, became the official Democratic choice for lieutenant governor.

The next day, Meade Esposito took credit for the remarkable Cuomo stretch drive.

In his first real try for elective office, Cuomo was on his way — to a decisive defeat by Mary Anne Krupsak in the Democratic primary.

It was a campaign during which he could not even get in to see — let alone be invited to brunch by — Dorothy Schiff, then publisher of the New York Post, and the late Alex Rose, sole proprietor of the Liberal Party. “I suppose,” says Cuomo, “they thought it would be a total waste of time to talk to some crude Italian Catholic. After all, they were liberals.”

Cuomo does have one warming memory from that campaign. He took his home town, New York City.

Troubleshooting

“Well,” a friend said to Cuomo a few weeks ago, “it didn’t turn out badly — what you call the universal rejection of 1974. After all, you’re secretary of state. What’s lieutenant governor?”

Morosely, Cuomo looked at him. “Elected.”

“So you’ll do it next time. You’re better known now. You’ve got a constituency.”

“My constituency,” Cuomo was amused again, “is a handful of six-foot Italians who used to play baseball.”

Obviously, until Cuomo runs again for office no one can be sure of the nature or size of his constituency. He is better known now, but vaguely. It is true that, as Judith Bender of Newsday has emphasized, Cuomo has taken what had until now been “a nondescript position,” secretary of state, and made it into a forceful, pervasively effective operation. But, says Cuomo, his office is still perceived as nondescript because “nobody’s descripted it yet.” Press coverage has been intermittent and highly casual, and so the citizens still do not have anything like a clear idea of what this secretary of state has been doing.

Some of Cuomo’s work has been troubleshooting for the governor. He negotiated the end of the 13-month rent strike at Co-Op City, was the fact-finder in the nursing homes miasma and recommended the appointment of special nursing home prosecutor Joe Hynes, and has long been engaged in working out a settlement in an initially fierce conflict between the Mohawk Indians and the state of New York concerning 612 acres of land at Moss Lake in the Adirondacks.

In his normal, omnivorous operations as secretary of state, Cuomo, under greatly expanded jurisdiction given the office by the governor, is involved in more diverse responsibilities than any state official except Hugh Carey. (Yet he has reduced his budget by 40 per cent while increasing productivity. “That comes,” Cuomo says, “from having been in private practice for so long where your bottom line was your bread. That last column was what you took home to the kids.”)

A decidedly incomplete listing of Cuomo’s departmental powers include the provision of technical, legal and financial services to local governments; fire prevention and control; state planning (which Cuomo is trying to decentralize); and all manner of licensing, from barbers to private eyes. He also has been pushing hard for measures that will force lobbyists to disclose everything they do and say to influence legislation as well as all their activities aimed at softening up members of the executive branch.

In real estate Cuomo has issued the first antiblockbusting order in New York history on a countywide basis. Actually, two counties were covered — Kings (Brooklyn) and Queens. “One way of getting the middle class to stay in the city,” Cuomo points out, “is to keep communities stable. But some real estate speculators and brokers have been doing entirely the opposite by panicking homeowners to sell out fast with the tale that poor blacks or Hispanics are going to take over the neighborhood. So what I did in those two counties was to order that real estate brokers can no longer solicit — that is, can no longer aggressively try to induce people to sell. The reason for going countywide is that when you put a nonsolicitation order on a local area, you stigmatize it. People figure that particular neighborhood must be slipping. This way we may be able to avoid that stigmatization.”

Cuomo was also responsible in December 1976 for his department’s revoking the license of a Manhattan real estate firm for not renting to blacks. It was the first time that had been done in more than a decade. In a lead editorial, “Bravo Mario!” the Amsterdam News saluted Cuomo for showing “the kind of guts long needed in New York to help get this city back on the right track as a place of equal opportunity where the law is enforced equally for all people.”

Still, there are doubts about Cuomo among some black politicians. A state senator told me recently that while he feels the Forest Hills compromise was actually a victory in that Cuomo had at least been able to preserve the project, nonetheless most blacks are “neutral” toward Cuomo.

“Well,” Cuomo said in reaction, “if I were a black man, it would be hard for me to be anything more than neutral about white people in this city and in this society.

“However,” Cuomo added, “your unnamed senatorial source is wrong in saying I’ve built no bridges. I was one of the first people in the Carey administration to talk to the black caucus in Albany at the invitation of Arthur Eve [a state senator with a consistently aggressive civil rights record]. And Eve has said publicly that there are few people in the administration who are more responsible to the black caucus than I am.”

If some blacks are nonetheless hesitant about Cuomo, so are certain white liberals — an executive of the New York Civil Liberties Union, for instance. “Cuomo makes me nervous,” he says. “At Forest Hills, he epitomized for me the backlash against the blacks. Since then, well, I really have nothing to go on, but I see him in the same mold as Richard Ravitch, Shanker, and Moynihan. Essentially conservative, pretending they’re liberals. But I will say for Cuomo that if he were to run for mayor, he’d be a candidate who could keep the middle class in the city. These are all just impressions, though. I don’t really know who Cuomo is.”

Jabberwocky

Two weeks ago, the phone rang in Cuomo’s office.

“Yes, pal,” says the secretary of state. It is yet another tempter. Declare! Declare now before it’s too late. You’d be the only candidate in the race with class.

Once more Cuomo repeats that he is not in the race. But, he adds, he will not be “Shermanesque” on the subject. Why? “Because the world changes, everything changes. I’m not being coy. I have a great sense of mutations.”

The telephone conversation over, Cuomo looks at me as if he thinks he knows what I am thinking.

“Why don’t I get up and endorse somebody who’s running and put an end to it, right? Cuomo says.

“Because you’re not enthusiastic about any of them.”

“No, I’m not.” Cuomo said this without cheer. “That bothers me too. Who the hell am I not to be enthusiastic about even one of them?”

“It could be you’re an intelligent man. Nobody has made much sense yet.”

Cuomo laughs. “You know what one of my ambitions is? Someday, on the stump, in the heat of a campaign — it has to be at that point when 12 candidates are rushing into each speaking engagement, one after the other — I want to run in, grab a mike, and bend it like Frank Sinatra. Then I would deliver Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.”

He got up, and arms waving, roared:

Twas brillig, as you and I have cause to know, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble, you’ve seen them gyre and gimble, in the goddamn wabe! That wabe that we pay for! Beware the Jujub bird, I tell you, beware, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!

“I bet you anything,” he said to me, “that I could get away with it.”

“What if that didn’t hold them?” I asked. “What if they wanted an encore?”

“Oh, I have that worked out, too,” Cuomo said. “I would tell them that I want the people of this city to understand that I can screw them as their mayor. Therefore, if I’m elected, I want them to watch every minute because I am capable of lapsing, as are the people around me. I really would say that.” Cuomo looked out the window. And turned around and looked sad. “That is, if I were going to run.”

Ready, Set, Go…

But he is going to run.

Cuomo has not told me that, but last week there were changing divinations. On Thursday, Cuomo had a long session with the governor. Cuomo will not reveal what was said. “If I were still in practice,” says the careful lawyer, “I wouldn’t tell you anything about a discussion I’d had with a client. It’s practically the same situation when someone in my job talks to the governor.” But other sources disclose that the mayoralty campaign was certainly mentioned. “Carey didn’t nail him to the wall or put him on the rack,” I was told, “but he leaned on him. My sense of Thursday’s meeting is that Mario is resisting a little bit less.”

That same day, the Daily News delivered itself of a “Special Editorial,” sternly advising Abe Beame to pack it in and make room for less ancient leadership. The next morning, in yet another special editorial, the News listed “outstanding candidates” for the long semi-vacant job at City Hall. For a paper with a working-class readership, two were bizarre (Richard Ravitch, Felix Rohaytn). Ed Koch got an honorable footnote. The top two choices were John Zuccotti and ex-ballplayer Mario Cuomo. Of the latter’s “impressive credentials,” the News cited “high intelligence, a hard, realistic view of what needs to be done to save New York, a reputation for almost zealous candor, and a capacity to inspire.”

To be sure, said the editorial writer, Cuomo is resisting combat, but “the conditions should be created that will encourage him to enter the race.” For most of that day, Cuomo was not in his office to deal with the considerable number of class prompted by the News editorial. It being Good Friday, Mario Cuomo, ex-altar boy, was in church. But late in the afternoon, he was again in the large room with the portrait of Saint Thomas More.

“Any change?” I asked him.

“No fixed change,” said the secretary of state, “but there are all kinds of turbulences at work now.”

“The Daily News editorial?”

“Flattering,” Cuomo said, “but it’s not what I mean.”

“Then it must be Matilda.”

“Yes, I think it’s going to be different with Matilda. She now is almost convinced by people she’s been talking to that the good I may be able to do for the city could justify depriving the family.”

“So it’s all up to you now,” I said.

Cuomo nodded. “It depends on whether I really would have a chance to do some good. Then it would be worth making the effort.” Pause. “I think a sufficient chance exists.”

“So I can say you’re going to run?”

A long pause.

“Let me put it this way,” I suggested to the secretary of state. “If I write that you are going to be a candidate for mayor, will I come out looking like a schmuck?”

“No,” the man of “almost zealous candor” said. “You will not.”

It’s a new ballgame for all, including Bella who leads all the pools.

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