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Mario Cuomo Gained Legendary Status Among Democrats

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Mario Cuomo was a three-term governor of New York and one of the most powerful voices in American liberalism. He died yesterday of heart failure at the age of 82. Cuomo had been hospitalized weeks ago, but returned home December 10 and died surrounded by his family. The end came just hours after his son Andrew had taken the oath for a second term of his own as governor of New York.

Although Mario Cuomo has been out of office for 20 years and never reached for the national office many envisioned for him, he retained a legendary status among Democrats, many of whom will never forget his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. Joining us to talk about Cuomo and his impact on America's political life, NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks for coming in this morning.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: So Cuomo - three terms as governor of New York, which is a big deal. Not many governors of that state last that long. But how did he gain national prominence?

ELVING: It was partly the staying power of the policies that he embodied. And perhaps he was the last avatar of New Deal liberalism. He had a strong belief in the power of government to make life better for the middle class, for wage earners and for people who were aspiring to get into the middle class. And that belief was distilled and conveyed to its greatest audience in that one remarkable speech on July 16, 1984 in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARIO CUOMO: Maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn't afford to use.

GREENE: OK, powerful message there delivered to President Ronald Reagan at the time. We should remember, though, I mean, Reagan was about to trounce the Democrats in that campaign. You're covering the speech - take us there.

ELVING: I was covering the convention as a newspaper reporter embedded in the Wisconsin delegation directly below the daises where they were seated. And we were looking right up at the governor. And first, there was the usual sort of background noise there in the convention hall.

But as the speech went on, with one memorable moment coming after another, the hall seemed to really connect with Cuomo. And the crowd became increasingly emotional. There were tears. There was shouting, and there was real electricity in the room. People really believed that somehow this power that they were seeing before them was going to prevail against Reagan.

GREENE: Sometimes people say about politics there really can be one moment that can transform for somebody. You're looking up at this guy from right below the dais, as you said, and this really brought him from sort of governor to sort of a national voice.

ELVING: He had only been governor for two years at the time. And certainly most of the delegates hadn't really had any much of a sense of him. And of course, the convention was supposed to be promoting the ticket, which was going to be former Vice President Walter Mondale and Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, who, like Cuomo, hailed from Queens in New York.

GREENE: Remind us of some of Cuomo's roots. Where did he come from?

ELVING: He - his roots were very important to him. His parents were Italian immigrants who ran a neighborhood store in Queens. He went to Catholic schools, and in college he signed a contract with a minor league team for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But his promising baseball career was cut short when he was hit by a pitch in the back of the head. They didn't wear helmets in those days.

And he went back to St. John's University in New York, got his college degree and his law degree there - first in his class in 1956. But when he tried to get a job in the most prestigious law firms in New York, he found all of those doors were closed to him. And he always thereafter attributed that to his background and his ethnicity.

GREENE: One door that seemed open to him was to run for president of the United States. A lot of people in the party really wished that would happen. Why didn't it?

ELVING: You know, in 1988 a lot of people talked about him running. They called the Democratic field that year the seven dwarves, but he still didn't get in. In 1992, he actually had a plane warming up on the tarmac to take him to New Hampshire to file in the primary, but he was in the midst of a budget fight with Republicans in Albany and they didn't get that resolved. And he said he couldn't leave New York and go to New Hampshire in a moment like that.

GREENE: What a dramatic political moment. In the few seconds we have left, what's his legacy?

ELVING: His legacy really is the issues, such as income inequality and the ability of government to do something to address all the inequities in society.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR's Ron Elving about Mario Cuomo and his legacy. He died yesterday of heart failure. Ron, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.