Mario Cuomo's Complex Relationship with NY Dems

In the weeks since his passing, many have praised Mario Cuomo the eloquent orator, liberal icon and principled death penalty opponent, while at the same time noting his curious inability to make up his mind about running for president. But another aspect of his governorship has gotten far less attention of late: Cuomo’s frequent unwillingness to lend support to his fellow New York Democrats.

The Democrats were in the minority in the state Senate during Cuomo’s three terms as governor. If one were to ask any of the surviving Democratic leaders from that era how much help the governor was in the fight to lift the party into the majority, it’s doubtful that he would be given much credit. It was widely believed that Cuomo preferred a divided legislature—both houses run by Democratic majorities would have presented a power center to rival his own, threatening his position as the undisputed King of Albany.

Echoes of this relationship can of course be found today in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ready acceptance of Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein as the forces to be reckoned with over the last two years, rather than Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Then there was the apparent "non-aggression pact" that Mario Cuomo maintained with Republican U.S. Senator Al D'Amato. If one were to ask Mark Green, who ran against D'Amato in 1986, or Bob Abrams, who ran against him in 1992, if the governor was much help, it’s doubtful they’d say “Yes”.

When Mayor David Dinkins faced a challenge from Rudy Giuliani in 1993, Cuomo chose to release, right in the middle of the campaign, a highly critical report on the city's handling of the Crown Heights riots that took place earlier in Dinkins' term in office. Cuomo also allowed a referendum to appear on the ballot that year concerning Staten Island’s possible secession from the rest of New York City, which brought more Republicans from that borough to the polls.

If there was any doubt that Giuliani owed Cuomo big-time for his indirect contribution to a narrow victory that year, it was dispelled when Giuliani endorsed Cuomo in his ill-fated bid for a fourth term against George Pataki, incurring the wrath of his fellow Republicans. 

Most New York Democrats admired Mario Cuomo, but it's also likely that a substantial number of them didn't like him very much. 

Richard Barr covered New York City and state government and politics for WBAI-FM, WNYC-AM, Reuters and other outlets from 1975 to 1989, and was a press secretary to New York's state attorney general from 1990 to 1995.

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