For New Yorkers who lived through the ’80s and cared about helping people in need, the passing of former Governor Mario Cuomo, while not entirely unexpected, was personal. One of only 5 Empire State Governors who served more than 2 terms in the last 175 years, among them giants of history like Al Smith, Tom Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, Cuomo loomed large for a generation in the U.S.
The first Governor Cuomo reveled in ideas, words and perhaps ironies. He was a near baseball star who would have traded his political celebrity for baseball stardom. He was thought of as the next-Presidential-hopeful, but couldn't quite convince himself to run. He was famous for a 1984 political convention keynote address he never considered a good speech, that inspires those who hear it today. He died on the day his son, our current governor, was sworn into his second term.
Cuomo’s 1984 speech came at a critical time. It was the Reagan era, well into the process of throwing off a “liberal” political paradigm that dominated policy for generations to adopt a conservative view with a smaller role for government and a less generous social contract. Politics was shifting from fighting poverty and homelessness to cutting spending and stressing personal responsibility.
In that context Cuomo spoke about the needs of vulnerable people, specifically including homeless people, when he responded to President Reagan’s view of the U.S. as “a shining city on a hill.”
“You ought to know that this nation is more a “Tale of Two Cities” Cuomo said, speaking to his time, but sounding so to today.
He spoke of people suffering and said “…the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory.” Cuomo said, of another part of shining city “… where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one…in this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where glitter doesn't show.”
Speaking to us today from 31 years ago, Mario Cuomo asked us to believe “…a society as blessed as ours, the most affluent democracy in the world’s history…ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute.”