Mario Cuomo, a son of Italian immigrants who became an eloquent spokesman for a generation of liberal Democrats during his three terms as governor of New York, has died. He was 82.
Cuomo, who served as governor from 1983 to 1994, died on the same day that his son delivered an inaugural address marking the beginning of his second term in the same office. He died at home of natural causes due to heart failure, surrounded by family, the governor's office said.
The elder Cuomo loomed large in New York politics during more than a decade at the helm of the state, and he became nationally celebrated for his ability to weave the story of his humble upbringing together with ringing calls for social justice.
But he was also known for the presidential races he stayed out of in 1988 and 1992. Cuomo agonized so publicly over whether to run for the White House that he was dubbed "Hamlet on the Hudson."
In 1991, Cuomo left a plane idling on the tarmac at the Albany airport rather than fly to New Hampshire and jump into the battle for the presidential nomination at the last minute. That left the door open for a lesser-known governor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Cuomo's last public appearance came in November, when his son Andrew was re-elected governor of New York. The frail-looking patriarch and his son raised their arms together in victory at the election-night celebration. At the younger Cuomo's inauguration speech Thursday, delivered just hours before his father died, the governor paid tribute to his father.
"He is in the heart and mind of every person who is here. He is here and he is here, and his inspiration and his legacy and his experience is what has brought this state to this point," Andrew Cuomo said. "So let's give him a round of applause."
Mario Cuomo's big political break came in 1982 when, as New York's lieutenant governor, he won the Democratic nomination for governor in an upset over New York Mayor Ed Koch. He went on to beat conservative millionaire Republican Lewis Lehrman.
His reputation for eloquence was secured at the 1984 Democratic National Convention when he delivered his "Tale of Two Cities" keynote address, in which he told of the lessons he learned as the son of a grocer in New York City.
"I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day," Cuomo told the crowd. "I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet — a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language — who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example."
The electrified delegates in San Francisco cheered, "Mario! Mario! Mario!" and some wondered whether they had chosen the wrong presidential candidate in Walter Mondale.
While Mondale's candidacy stumbled, Cuomo took his oratorical skill to Notre Dame University, where as the nation's most famous Roman Catholic supporter of abortion rights, he argued the church should not expect him to press for outlawing abortions, given that many Catholics themselves were having them.
Cuomo was an unusually cerebral politician, giving to musing at length about anything from fiscal policy to the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
He was prickly as well as eloquent. Cuomo regularly sparred with reporters, Republicans, fellow Democrats and even children. He once said "I didn't come into this business to be bland," and he rarely was. Complaining about what he saw as anti-Italian stereotyping, Cuomo once said the Mafia was "a word invented by people" and "a lot of baloney." He once had a little boy near tears after asking how old he was and then pressing the child on how he could be sure of his answer.
In early 1987, he was leading in the polls among prospective White House contenders when he said he would not be a candidate. A more protracted dance in 1991 ended with the filing deadline for the nation's first presidential primary 90 minutes off. Cuomo walked into a packed news conference in Albany and cited a continuing budget battle with New York's Republicans in declining to run.
Before the news conference had even ended, the national TV crews were packing up their cameras.
Cuomo easily won re-election for governor in 1986 and 1990. He repeatedly vetoed legislation that would have restored the death penalty in New York, and he closed down the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island. He also built 30 new prisons. Under Cuomo, the state budget grew from $28 billion to $62 billion.
In 1993, he turned down an opportunity to be nominated by Clinton for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, telling the new president in a letter that "by staying active in our nation's political process, I can continue to serve as a vigorous supporter of the good work you are doing for America and the world."
Nineteen months later, with voters tired of him, Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth term to George Pataki, a GOP state lawmaker who had promised to cut taxes and bring back the death penalty.
"I wanted to win this more than any political contest I ever had," Cuomo said as he prepared to leave office. "I'm not good at wanting things in life. I've made a habit of not wanting things too much."
Mario Matthew Cuomo was born on June 15, 1932, and grew up behind the small grocery store run by his parents in South Jamaica, Queens.
He attended St. John's University, not far from home, and after graduating with honors in 1953, he spent a summer playing minor league baseball in Georgia for a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. His professional baseball career ended after he was hit in the head by a pitch and spent several days in a hospital.
Cuomo graduated from St. John's Law School in 1956, tied for top class honors, and soon after went into private practice. He came to the attention of New York City's political community in 1972 when he successfully mediated a housing dispute in Queens for then-Mayor John Lindsay.
In 1974, he made his first run for public office, losing a Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. Hugh Carey, the newly elected Democratic governor, appointed Cuomo as New York's secretary of state.
He lost the mayoral primary race to Koch in 1977. During the campaign, posters that read "Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo" mysteriously appeared in some neighborhoods. Cuomo denied any responsibility, but the bachelor Koch never forgave him.
Cuomo was elected lieutenant governor in 1978.
Following his tenure as governor, Cuomo joined the prestigious Willkie Farr & Gallagher law firm in Manhattan. He continued to give speeches across the country.
Cuomo and his wife, Matilda, had three daughters and two sons. Andrew Cuomo was New York's attorney general before becoming governor. His other son, Chris, is a CNN newscaster.
-- Michael Hill, David Klepper, Marc Humbert, David Ushery and Gabe Pressman contributed to this report.