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The Prose (And Poetry) of Mario M. Cuomo
The New York governor likes to distinguish the "poetry" of politics -- the cheers, the charisma -- from the hard "prose" of government. As the presidential-election cycle approaches, it's a good time to ask, How has this poet done with that prose? What kind of governor has he been and what does his record say about the kind of President he might make?

by Charles C. Mann

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

IT'S full-bore summer in Queens, and the air in the Sunnyside Community Services Senior Center auditorium is close to unbearable -- it feels like breathing through a hot sponge. Perspiring beneath a gaggle of ceiling fans is a crowd of some 300 people, almost all of whom are old enough to be called senior citizens, and many of whom are waving fans printed with the name of a local funeral home. Despite the oppressive heat, they are wreathed in smiles. A local boy has come back to visit, and he has brought good news with him.

The dais is crowded with reporters, photographers, community activists, and minor political luminaries, but the center of attention is a man with the shrewd, pouchy face of the likable tough guy in an old movie. He wears a blue suit of no particular cut, black shoes of no particular style. With his sleek, bulletlike head tucked into his powerful shoulders, he is instantly recognizable. He is Mario Cuomo, the governor of the state of New York.
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Because the governor usually plays the starring role on ceremonial occasions, he is almost always the last person to speak. Thus Cuomo spends a surprising amount of time before audiences who are waiting for him to take center stage -- something that one might see as a metaphor for a man whom Democrats have longingly invoked as a presidential candidate for six years, and whose every public appearance is dogged by questions about his designs on the White House. Such questions are unavoidable as long as Cuomo remains, as a recent National Journal poll indicated, the two-to-one favorite of Democratic Party operatives for their 1992 presidential nomination. Today, however, Cuomo is not running for President. Today he is going to sign two bills, one capping what doctors may charge Medicare patients, the other expanding a program called EPIC, which insures the elderly against high drug costs. Both are wildly popular in this chunk of Queens.

Cuomo advances to the podium. He moves with the zest natural to anyone who has been greeted at the door by a marching band of young girls in adorable yellow sequined dresses. The crowd is palpably with him. He wants to talk; they want to listen. In the course of the next few minutes he will unapologetically extol the virtues of his eighty-eight-year-old mother, who came to New York from Italy and struggled all her life to give her children a chance; claim that stories such as this are why the United States is the most wonderful place on earth; argue that we grew to our present stature despite having one hand tied behind our collective back, because until quite recently we kept black Americans and women from adding their special genius to the national effort; urge the audience not to give up on government, because the capacity to enact programs like EPIC is a sign that government can work; bemoan the failure to ban assault rifles, which is a sign that government is not working well enough; decry the federal government for walking away from social programs; and repeatedly thank the people who made this moment possible -- especially the Republicans who control the state senate -- thus firmly associating the opposition with the $75 million annual cost of EPIC.

"We are begging the federal government for a billion dollars to fight crime and do something about drugs," he'll say. "They say there's no money! They can't fund it. But where are they going to get five-hundred billion dollars for the savings-and-loans?" Shrugging, he will cock an ear toward an imaginary Uncle Sam at stage right. "Okay, okay, we accept it," he'll tell Uncle Sam the welsher. "But didn't you promise our people they wouldn't have to sleep on sidewalks? Didn't you promise that people would live a decent life? And now you're telling me you can't think of national health insurance? Every other industrial nation in the world has it! We have more of everything than they do, but you're saying we can't do it? You're saying we have to leave thirty-five million without insurance? And twenty-five million illiterate? People who can't even read the label on their prescriptions? Of course you can do it! You're the greatest country in the world and you haven't even tried!"

These themes -- particularly the one about Mom, in this audience of Moms -- will go over like thunder. Cuomo will be applauded rapturously. But for now, as he stands on the dais, everyone is going to have to wait just a little bit longer. The man many believe to be the finest political orator in the country is being drowned out by a spidery old fellow in a faded blue shirt. "Cuomo for President!" the man bellows, at astonishing, improbable volume. "Cuomo for President! Cuomo for President!"

"Nobody Has Any Idea What He's been Doing"

MARIO Matthew Cuomo has just been elected overwhelmingly in a contest in which the outcome was regarded as so definitely a foregone conclusion that last August a senior editor at a major New York City newspaper was not sure whether his publication would bother with its customary election-year evaluation of the governor's record. "We'd have to find out the guy was an ax murderer to affect the results," this man said. "I'm not sure we have the resources for futile gestures."

In some ways Cuomo's invincibility is mystifying. The word "liberal" is said to be anathema, but New York has been run for eight years by someone to whom it is applied more often than to anybody save perhaps Senator Edward M. Kennedy. The governor, who detests labels, claims that such a description is meaningless; but it is not if taxing and spending is any measure, because New York taxes the average citizen more heavily than any other state and, except for unusual cases like Alaska, spends more money per capita, and Mario Cuomo is therefore a "tax-and-spend Democrat" of the sort that is supposed to have vanished with the California tax revolt of the late 1970s. New York, moreover, is in the same financial predicament that has toppled or threatened governors in nearby Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. The state government has piled up a $5 billion deficit at a time when tax revenues are less than expected, and welfare costs are soaring. Months of deadlock between the governor and the legislature over the budget were resolved only by a series of accounting gimmicks that included arranging for the state to "sell" some of its prisons and highways to itself and then issue bonds to pay for the "purchase." In the process New York's bond ratings became the third lowest in the country.

The consequences of failure would seem everywhere apparent. Schools and universities are in parlous condition; city emergency rooms overflow with the poor, the addicted, and the deranged; and even the highways are shaky, with 60.8 percent of bridges on federal highways in New York (which are maintained by the state) not meeting U.S. standards for design or maintenance. Violent crime has increased steadily during Cuomo's tenure, and children are being caught in the crossfire -- twenty-two were shot in New York City between July 22 and September 23 alone. Why, it is fair to ask, have the voters returned Cuomo to the governorship?

Part of Cuomo's hold on New York is surely that he is a Democrat in a state without a functioning statewide Republican Party. Despite having a popular senator, Alfonse D'Amato, control of the state senate, and heavy support in suburban and rural areas, the New York Republican Party has never managed to run a well-known professional politician against Cuomo. "It's strange when you think about it," says Alan Chartock, a political-science professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz and at Albany, who hosts a weekly radio talk show with the governor. "The Republicans could run a dog and get forty percent of the vote. And that's more or less what they've been doing." Cuomo's first opponent, in 1982, was a zillionaire chain-store owner who wore big red suspenders everywhere and criticized Ronald Reagan for insufficient adherence to supply-side economics. Next, in 1986, came a little-known county executive from the suburbs who walked around with a life-size cardboard cutout of Cuomo that he "debated" when the governor, as incumbents will, set tough conditions for accepting real debates. Cuomo's most recent opponent was a rich economic consultant named Pierre Rinfret who was picked to run as a Republican despite not being registered in the party. Soon after the nomination reporters discovered that Rinfret, who claimed to have a Ph.D. from the University of Dijon, had actually neglected to earn one. Matters did not improve from there on.

But another, greater part of the governor's hold on New York has to do with his ability to transmit his vision of things -- a skill that many non-New Yorkers became aware of during his televised speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. In that address, which caused a flurry of presidential rumors, Cuomo urged the citizenry to "surrender some small parts of our individual interests, to build a platform we can all stand on, at once, and comfortably." And that is exactly what Cuomo has tried to do, slowly and cautiously, in New York State. During his tenure New York has, willy-nilly, conducted an incremental experiment in the ability of government to deliver services to the people, especially the poor, the elderly, and the helpless. At the same time, it has been testing the willingness of its taxpayers to pay for those services -- all in an era when government's very ability to plan, monitor, and respond has been under attack from the highest offficials in the land.

It is hard to depict Cuomo's popularity as the public's reasoned acceptance of these policies. Despite its evergrowing importance, state government is a kind of black hole: money goes in, and almost nobody knows how, or if, anything comes out. Albany, the capital of New York, is no exception. Just three hours from New York City, it is treated by the metropolis's media as if it were three time zones away. "Because the media only cover political scandals and the annual budget fight, the public has no way of knowing what's going on," says Meyer Frucher, a former state official who has been described as one of Cuomo's closest advisers. "I'm a big supporter of the governor, but I have to tell you that I think almost nobody has any idea of what he's been doing up there for all these years."

Taxing & Spending #1: Taxing

ON springtime monday mornings the 7:35 a.m. Amtrak to Albany leaves Grand Central with a full load of bleary-eyed Democratic legislators and their aides. Before long the train is out of New York City and rumbling north along the lush Hudson River valley. The country is green, agricultural, conservative; Republicans come aboard at almost every stop. Lobbyists and reporters appear as if from nowhere. The discussion gets hotter, the cigarette smoke thicker; because it is budget season, the word "taxes" is in every second sentence. By 10:15, when the train arrives, the legislative day is in full swing.

As one comes into Albany, it is easy to see who has been to the capital before. While the regulars argue, the newcomers are pressing their noses to the window in disbelief. Atop a hill in the center of town is an immense white marble plaza crowned with white marble skyscrapers of remarkable ugliness. Although 10:15 is coffee-break time, not one of the thousands of workers has chosen to sit outside; the harsh stone of the plaza is empty. This is the Empire State Plaza, seat of the government of New York State.

In its overweening scale the plaza seems to epitomize what fiscal conservatives loathe about the Democratic Party. But the plaza, like much of the governmental machinery it houses, was created by a Republican, Nelson A. Rockefeller. Rockefeller, people in Albany say, was the greatest Great Society liberal of them all. First elected in 1958, this rich, ruthless, idealistic man utterly dominated New York for fourteen tumultuous years. By the time Rockefeller left, per capita state taxes had jumped sevenfold and state and local taxes absorbed an amazing 16 percent of New Yorkers' personal income. With the money Rockefeller built what was then the biggest public-university system in the world, thousands of miles of landscaped highway, hospitals by the score, dozens of state parks, and, of course, the Empire State Plaza, which alone cost the equivalent of more than $4 billion in today's dollars. To a large extent the job of every governor since has been to cope with this legacy.

Rockefeller chose to locate the plaza on a hillside, and its designers balanced the whole gigantic structure on a huge platform that is periodically checked by engineers to ensure that it is stable. The plaza did not collapse; the government nearly did. By the end of 1974, the year after Rockefeller left office, some state agencies were on the verge of default. New York City almost went bankrupt in 1975. Governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat, was forced to pick up the pieces: he cut taxes a bit and held spending steady. Ultimately Carey was rescued by the inflation of the Carter years, which pushed more New Yorkers into higher tax brackets. As his secretary of state, Carey picked a lawyer from New York City, Mario Cuomo. It was Cuomo's first major public office.

By most measures the legislators pouring from the train into the plaza are full-time civil servants. Yet New York's legislature, like most other state legislatures, is based on the long-ago ideal of a government by gentleman amateurs. Enough of the Ted Mack flavor remains that Albany can be easily lampooned. New York has a state muffin: the apple muffin. It also has a state fossil: Eurypterus remipes, a sea scorpion. Both were selected and debated by the legislature. At the same time, Albany must deal with closer, harder truths than its more august uncle in Washington, D.C., has to face. New York, like many states, is required by law to balance its budget. And because states have neighbors, they must worry about driving people away with high taxes.

Such matters seem more pressing than usual on this particular spring morning. The 1990-1991 budget is more than a month late; this is the sixth year in a row that the negotiations have gone overtime. The budget itself is not the issue. Instead, the fight is over projections of how much money the state will get from this year's taxes. The estimates come from two well-known private economic-forecasting firms: DRI/McGraw-Hill, hired by the governor's office, and Wharton Econometrics, hired by the state senate. Both seem to have guessed wrong. According to the governor, actual receipts indicate that there will be a shortfall of more than a billion dollars, and so a scheduled tax cut must be put off. The senate is arguing that the governor's revenue and spending estimates are too pessimistic by more than $300 million, and so the tax cut can go through.

Humiliatingly, it will soon emerge that the governor is right and the Republicans are being fiscally irresponsible. But the senate majority leader, Ralph J. Marino, is addressing a real concern with his plaints that New York's taxes are too high. The past decade has transformed "tax" into the dirtiest word in American politics. Although the reaction to taxes is sometimes hysterical, it does mirror a real public-policy concern: that higher taxes make it harder for people and businesses to stay in a state. Unfortunately, it is unclear when taxes are "too high." Too high compared with what? What are the bad effects? And how would you know?

State tax systems are far from alike. Seven states have no personal-income tax; five have no corporate-income tax; five have no sales tax. All states tax gasoline, cigarettes, and estates, but at different rates. Alabama doesn't tax prescription drugs for the elderly; Rhode Island taxes sports clothing but not formal wear; Kentucky doesn't tax some kinds of coal. Only fifteen states have a state property tax. Because of the differences, comparing state tax systems seems impossible. Does a state that raises money by taxing an asset like property burden the citizen more than one that raises money by taxing income? Is a low sales tax in a poor state as burdensome to its poor citizens as a high income tax is to the relatively richer people in a rich state?

Widely used comparisons emanate from a little-known federal agency called the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. Every two years a small platoon of ACIR statisticians estimates the depth of the tax pocket available to each state government, and compares it with its fellows. The national average is set at 100; New York, at 152, has the highest tax effort of any state in the nation. (Massachusetts -- "Taxachusetts" -- has an ACIR rating of only 94; its high per capita income cushions the impact of its taxes.) That figure is what people mean, or should mean, when they say New York is highly taxed. The number, slightly reduced during Cuomo's tenure, implies that the governor is betting that taxes 50 percent above the national average are not a recipe for disaster, for the state or for his own political future.

He may be right: economists argue that the simple amount of taxes can be less important than the type of taxes levied. The influence of taxes in South Dakota, which has no income tax but very high death and gift taxes, will be different from that in North Carolina, which has a high gas tax (almost twenty-one cents a gallon) but a very low cigarette tax (two cents a pack). New York's high ACIR rank may make little difference to its economy overall if the state has the right mixture of taxes. But here one enters the realm of folklore, because the consequences of state tax policy are rarely studied systematically. According to the former governor of New Jersey Thomas H. Kean, it is generally thought -- but far from proved -- that the "most dangerous" tax for states is the progressive personal-income tax. (A progressive tax is one that requires richer people to pay a greater proportion of their income than poorer people.) "For the working class, any raise in the income tax is going to be less than the cost of moving [out of state]," Kean says. "But when you sock it to the wealthy, a high percentage of their fixed costs are going to be in that tax, and it starts to be worthwhile for them to move. Then what happens is they take their companies with them, even though strictly speaking the economic justification might not be there. And we've benefited from that in New Jersey -- companies following their CEO out of New York." The problem, as Kean points out, is that this logic induces states to rely increasingly on flat taxes that disproportionately hit the poor; indeed, Elliott Dubin, an ACIR analyst, has calculated that the use of regressive "non-taxes" like parking fees and school-lunch charges has more than doubled since the 1950s.

If state income taxes especially induce business and the upper middle class to seek greener, tax-free pastures, New York should be in trouble. Although Democrats Carey and Cuomo have cut Republican Rockefeller's top rates by more than half, ACIR computations show that New York still relies on income taxes more than do all but two other states. In other words, New York raises money on a system that weighs on the poor much less than do the systems of most other states -- but shifts the burden to precisely those people who can most easily flee it. If they flee it, Kean says, "you get in this kind of cycle I think Massachusetts has gotten itself in at times, where in order to keep the state services you have now, you increase taxes again." The spiral gets out of control, and the state's finances are wrecked.

New York sometimes seems to have begun that cycle. Cuomo likes to trumpet that New York has generated a million new jobs in the past decade, but on a percentage basis that figure is a quarter below the national average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (These numbers always refer to nonagricultural jobs, partly because many farm workers are nomadic and thus are hard to assign to a particular state.) Worse, in the past five years New York actually lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs, which are usually well paid -- at a time when even an economic basket case like Michigan held steady.

People left too. In the past decade, New York's population grew by only a quarter of the national average, indicating that thousands of New Yorkers moved out. Although such counts are notoriously uncertain, it is sometimes proposed that New York gained population only because it absorbed a large number of poor immigrants, suggesting that many, if not most, of those who left were in the middle class.

Cuomo's conservative opponents naturally like to quote such figures. But it seems reasonable to ask if taxes actually caused the state's relative decline. If tax policies were a principal reason for businesses and their workers to relocate, one would expect that over the long haul states with low taxes would generate more new jobs than states with high taxes. That isn't necessarily the case. New Hampshire, with tax policies ranked by Grant Thornton, a Chicago accounting firm, as the most attractive in the nation, created jobs at twice the national rate during the 1980s. But neighboring Vermont, a high-tax state ranked thirty-sixth, created them at almost the same speed. One must believe either that the businesses that chose to expand in Vermont rather than in New Hampshire were foolish or that, notwithstanding the hoopla surrounding the tax revolt, taxes were not the most important factor in their decision.

Most economists argue the latter. "The major factors," says Bruce Fisher, the research director of Citizens for Tax Justice, a Washington lobby, "are the average hourly wage, which state and local governments don't have much control over, and things like education and other services, which they do. Businesses like places with good schools, good health-care systems, and good roads. The cost difference is going to have to be enormous before they'll take a chance on illiterate workers and pothole-filled streets. And if that's what they want, they'll go to Mexico, not a low-tax state."

In other words, once you've established that a state's taxes are high, you've learned nothing other than that they raise a lot of money. A more useful question is how that money is spent. Does, so to speak, a dollar of tax buy a dollar's worth of government? If tax revenue is employed carefully and efficiently, then a relatively high rate of taxation may be an appropriate response to a relatively high level of need, as when there are more poor people than average, or more children to educate. It might also indicate that the citizens of the state, through their government, have decided to buy something expensive, like beautifully landscaped parks, or a top-notch public health-care system. "Judging government's performance is extremely difficult," says Harry Hatry, of the Urban Institute, who recently co-managed a project with the Governmental Accounting Standards Board which attempted to do just that. "It's a question of the level of service. With high per capita costs, like New York's, if you're getting value, it's one thing. If you're not, it's really bad."

"What one has to ask is, are we getting our money's worth?" a former top New York City official says. "Are the hospitals, schools, and bridges worth the price the state is charging? If you need a reliable car, you're willing to pay more for one that runs well than one that doesn't. But is Mario asking us to pay for a Mercedes -- and giving us a Rent-a-Wreck?"

"The Smartest Person I Ever Met"
IF you sit behind home plate at a New York Mets game and look over the center-field fence, you can see the spot where Mario Cuomo began his political career. It looks like a bunch of junkyards. In fact, it is a bunch of junkyards -- the "Cuomo Memorial Junkyards," as the governor puts it. Next to them a New York State potentate named Robert Moses decided to locate the 1964 World's Fair. A paladin of big government, the seventy-six-year-old Moses was a preternaturally energetic man whose multiple positions within the city and state had allowed him to construct a gigantic network of parks, roads, beaches, bridges, and housing projects. In so doing, he destroyed dozens of neighborhoods and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Moses was also the president of the World's Fair. For its site he chose a near-vacant marsh called Flushing Meadows. At the north end of the marsh, just beyond the fair site, was a small group of scrap-metal dealers. Their establishments were piled high with rusty metal. Moses thought the whole setup unsightly, and wanted to replace it with a stadium for Little League baseball.

The dealers felt trapped. Because not much of New York City was zoned for junkyards, they couldn't move. Having few skills, they couldn't find other work easily. They decided to fight. They ended up with a lawyer who was just thirty-two years old. But he was from Queens, and, like many of them, he was Italian-American. His name was Mario Cuomo.

Cuomo took the case, he says now, because he thought the idea of playing Little League in a full-tilt stadium was ridiculous. Moreover, a city without junkyards is a city in which amateur mechanics can't paw around for parts on Saturday afternoons. "The proposal I made," Cuomo says today, "was to reduce all the piles, to build magnificent corrugated green fencing, with Lombardy poplars, at our expense." When Moses brushed aside the fencing and poplars, Cuomo commenced the now-familiar round of threats, injunctions, hearings, appeals, and press conferences by which small organized groups of citizens thwart the will of their leaders. Eventually Cuomo won. His grateful clients responded by trying to stiff him on his fee.

One public struggle begat another, and that begat a third. In both the new cases Cuomo strove to make the political establishment sensitive to the concerns of neighborhoods that felt threatened by the means planned to accomplish liberal goals like building low-income housing. In return Cuomo was given the punishment that a democracy always metes out to a successful crusader from outside -- he was invited inside, and asked to run for office. He failed several times before becoming governor, a position whose duties had been set out in the 1920s by Robert Moses. Moses had wanted to be governor; he did not stint on the authority he awarded the job.

Cuomo has often expressed ambivalence about being in charge. He was not a politician until he was over forty, and has always clung firmly to his social roots, which are among people who did not expect to wield power or to move in elevated circles. He was born and raised in Queens, the largest of New York City's five boroughs. Visitors to New York can learn all about Queens's place in the city, Cuomo likes to say, by reading the signs at the expressway entrance from John F. Kennedy Airport. The signs say TO NEW YORK CITY. JFK Airport is in Queens. "We're Queens, you're New York City," Cuomo says. "Technically, of course, were New York City, but we weren't Manhattan, we weren't power, we weren't nightclubs, we weren't anything like it. We were every poor neighborhood in the United States of America."

His parents, Andrea and Immaculata, emigrated in the 1920s from a village near Naples and eventually set up a small grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens. In those days Queens was much more a collection of villages separated by open country than seems possible today, and South Jamaica was a reasonably self-contained unit. It was separated from the richer settlement of Jamaica by an embankment with a railroad track on top. (Yes, Mario Cuomo was born on the wrong side of the tracks.) The third and youngest child, he spent his first years playing alone with the boxes in the back of the store. He scarcely spoke English until he went to school.

Andrea Cuomo worked fearfully hard. Cuomo claims never to have had a long talk with him, because he was always working. He was as fierce a taskmaster with his family as he was with himself. He set aside all his money for his children, and expected them to do well in school. "He couldn't read the report card, right?" Cuomo says. "The only thing he knew were the marks, the A's.... But he would look at it and he would say, 'A, A, A, A -- B!"' Each B earned a box on the ears. "He didn't know what the subject was or what you got the B for, but he knew you were supposed to get an A."

With such encouragement, Cuomo did well in school. Eventually he finagled a scholarship to a Catholic high school, St. John's Preparatory, run by the Community of St. Vincent de Paul. Cuomo was one of the poorer kids, an argumentative, competitive, terribly hardworking boy who found his social niche on the baseball team. When there was time, he played basketball in several leagues -- under aliases like Glendy La Duke and Lava Libretti. He went at it street style, scrappy and fast, elbowing in a little harder than they do in the suburbs. (He still does; when a TV news crew recently filmed him playing basketball with his son, viewers sent angry letters because he was so rough. ) A classmate, William Tash, recalls a day when he managed to drag himself to the subway particularly early. It was barely daybreak, and there on the train was Mario. Gee, Tash said, you're getting to school early. No, Cuomo said. It's not early. Tash was stunned to learn that Cuomo got up at 4:00 every morning to study and work in the store. Tash was not surprised to find there was something about his friend that he hadn't known; then, as now, Cuomo held his cards close to the vest.

St. John's steeped its students in the intricacies of theology -- a kind of intellectual seduction of the believer with an interest in argument. For Cuomo, who was and is a practicing Roman Catholic, it was a terrific place to be. When he graduated, he went across the street to St. John's College. Now on another, bigger campus, St. John's was then a small place with perhaps 800 students. The Vincentians lived in the "priest house" just off campus; the seniors wore black gowns. It was quite conservative, recalls Jim DeNike, who graduated with Cuomo. "There was a lot of discussion about McCarthy," he says. "The general feeling was pro-McCarthy, probably from some of the faculty."

Cuomo didn't give a rap about politics. He wanted to get As and go to law school and marry his girlfriend, Matilda. A BMOC, Cuomo was a top student and athlete. His reputation as a baseball player brought him to the attention of the pros. In 1951 he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates -- with the proviso, which Andrea insisted upon, that training not interfere with his education. Cuomo's Bull Durham period didn't last long. In his first season on the farm team he was hit on the head by a fast ball. Hospitalized for weeks, he was told that he might not recover from a second hit. He went to law school at St. John's. A year later he married Matilda.

Although Cuomo did well in his first two years, the arrival of his first child, Margaret, made him realize how far away real security lay. "It's 1956, you don't know anybody, nobody in your neighborhood goes to school, let alone law school -- they don't go to college. Where am I going to go for business? ... So I, gee, I nearly worked myself to death that last year. I got A in everything. I just knocked everything dead. I did very well on the bar exam." Tied for first in the class, Cuomo waited for the job offers to fill his mailbox. They didn't come. He couldn't even get an interview with a Wall Street firm.

The irate Cuomo was approached by his law school dean, Harold F. McNiece, who gently suggested that he change his name to something without a vowel at the end. "Take a good look at me," the governor likes to say now, pointing to the long nose, the deep brown eyes, the saggy, stubborn, Latin features. "Can you imagine me as Mark Conrad? Can you imagine me in white sneakers and a tennis racket" -- he drops into a startlingly good imitation of an oatmeal-faced WASP -- "'Hi. Mark Conrad, from Debevoise and Plimpton'?"

Cuomo eventually landed a prestigious clerkship at the New York State Court of Appeals, but the slight remained vivid. When he went into private practice, he joined a firm in Brooklyn, becoming part of the throng of lawyers whose offices crowd Court Street to this day. The term "Court Street lawyer" has curious connotations in the city's legal profession; it is used to refer to the mob of assembly-line attorneys who fill the borough's personal-injury and nuisancesuit courts. (In one legal broil a professor at Brooklyn Law School actually countersued a colleague for calling him a Court Street lawyer.) Cuomo, as it happens, worked for Corner, Weisbrod, Froeb, and Charles, one of the two or three prestige firms in the area. But, as the firm's first litigation specialist, he was not entirely separate from the contentious ambience of Court Street.

Going to trial requires a fantastic level of commitment. When court is in session, good litigators work round the clock in a state of meticulously controlled fury. Cuomo loved it. It became apparent that he possessed what lawyers call confrontational skills. After just a few weeks at the firm, Cuomo was taken to lunch at the Brooklyn Club by Richard Patrick Charles, a tough Irishman who was a senior partner. In Cuomo's recollection, Charles opened the conversation by growling, "You're pretty good. What are we givin' you?"

"Seventy-five hundred," Cuomo said.

"Make it eighty-five," Charles said grandly.

Cuomo quickly became a well-known presence at 32 Court Street. James Starkey, a St. John's law school graduate who worked for another firm in the building, sometimes met Cuomo for a drink after work. "I noticed that something was occurring I was unused to," he recalls. "I kept losing arguments." Starkey's brother, who had known Cuomo in college, asked if the new man was as smart a lawyer as he seemed to think he was. "My response was that he may be the smartest person I've ever met," says Starkey, who is now a judge on the state court of claims. "Nothing that happened since has caused me to change that opinion."

Cuomo won case after case and built up his firm's litigation department. Nonetheless, in the opinion of Fabian Palomino, who had become Cuomo's friend when they were law clerks together, the work was not, finally, satisfying. "Making other people rich wasn't enough," Palomino says. When Cuomo began taking on jobs like the junk-yard fight, things became more interesting. "Fighting politicians, he learned that government had a lot of power," Palomino says. "It could do a little bit of good." With that realization, Cuomo took his first, gingerly step toward elective office. Years later, when Nelson Mandela came to New York, Cuomo and Palomino, who is now special counsel to the governor, greeted him at the airport. Cuomo had been asked to introduce the hero of the South African resistance at a special session of the United Nations. While waiting for Mandela, Palomino asked him: Mario, when we were law clerks together, did you ever think you would end up addressing the United Nations?

No, Cuomo said. Inconceivable -- what had happened in his life was beyond belief. Entering the airport, they passed the signs: TO NEW YORK CITY. The sky was blue, merciless, hot. A battalion of photographers waited outside the gate. All the nation seemed to focus on the resistance leader's arrival.

Governor Cuomo! A woman thrust a microphone in Cuomo's face. Governor Cuomo! Are you running for President?

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

Copyright © 1990 by Charles C. Mann. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1990; The Prose (and Poetry) of Mario M. Cuomo; Volume 266, No. 6; pages 90 - 108.

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