A few years ago, a top New York political operative challenged me to a guessing game: Whose endorsement, he asked, was the most sought-after for candidates trying to reach the liberal voters who dominate New York City Democratic politics?
I guessed Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Chuck Schumer, and the other obvious big names.
The answer, which hadn't occurred to me: Mario Cuomo.
His name hadn't occurred to me because, by the time I started covering New York City Hall full time in 2001, Cuomo was gone. He died Thursday, and three of the great New York reporters who covered him, Adam Nagourney, Ken Auletta, and Elizabeth Kolbert, have written beautifully about his talents and his flaws. Much of what they wrote was new to me.
Mario (big enough to lose the last name) had been a man known for his moral scruples and his fine words. He had dominated New York's Democratic politics until less than a decade before I started covering it. But he had somehow failed to leave a clear mark on the body politic. The three-term governor who succeeded him, George Pataki, had won by repudiating his legacy. New York City politics, under Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, had taken on a tough-talking, pragmatic feel. The governor whom people like Giuliani and Bloomberg invoked was Hugh Carey, Cuomo's less eloquent predecessor, who saved the city from its financial crisis.
There were icons, of course, but somehow Cuomo wasn't in the pantheon. If you talked about the failed promise of urban liberalism, you talked about John Lindsay. The missed opportunity that city Democrats lamented wasn't Cuomo's ill-starred 1994 re-election campaign, but David Dinkins' defeat in 1993. Mario's place in his son's political life was something of a secret — they wouldn't talk about one another much — but when a wild glimpse emerged in a legendary 2002 Nagourney story, the interest was psychological, not political.
And as for the political day-to-day — he just wasn't there. Cuomo had a quiet dignity. He'd never been a flashy, natural pol, unlike his old rival Ed Koch, who was always there, ready with a quip on deadline or a long monologue for his own obituary. Cuomo was, of course, exactly the person you'd want for a certain kind of profile or political analysis piece, and he had a desk at Willkie Farr and an assistant named Mary who would, once in a while, get a hold of him. He'd talk forever, witty and charming, but also you were on deadline, and he hadn't given you anything that quite fit your story. He could, like his son, be hard to get off the line.
Cuomo was a giant of the 1980s, in some sense the truest leader of the opposition. It would have been natural to imagine then that when the pendulum swung back to the Democratic Party, Cuomo and his policies would be elevated. Instead came Bill Clinton, who ran against his own party's left and promised something new, something a little more respectful of Ronald Reagan than you would have expected, and something divorced from the party whose hero Cuomo had been.
Clinton would have run against Cuomo, of course, had Cuomo run. But Cuomo's son went to work for Clinton, and Andrew Cuomo — sworn in for his own second term in Albany the day his father died — has governed like a man who learned from his father what not to do. Andrew is an expert in the raw and unapologetic use of power, and a master of triangulation.
The only people who hadn't forgotten Cuomo were the people who elected him three times. To a generation of New York liberals shaped by their loathing for Reagan, Cuomo represented the kind of humane, literate, reflective politics that they hadn't found since — whether in Washington, Albany, or New York City Hall. That's why his endorsement kept mattering to voters long after the press stopped paying any attention to it.
His political heirs may not include his son, but they are almost everywhere else in the Democratic Party these days: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ran on a "tale of two cities" whose origins are in Cuomo's 1984 convention speech. And Barack Obama, whose own political coming of age was in Cuomo's New York, seems intent on spending the last years of his term pulling the party back toward Mario's outspoken, principled liberalism.
Cuomo lost re-election in 1994; an earlier version of this story got the date wrong. His assistant's name was also misstated.