Invoking father’s legacy advantageous for Cuomo, experts and officials say

New York Democratic Party
A tribute to Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Invoking father’s legacy advantageous for Cuomo, experts and officials say

Invoking father’s legacy advantageous for Cuomo, experts and officials say
July 28, 2016

In a short film about former Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose speech at the 1984 convention took the nation by storm, his son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, recounts the inspiration that the elder Cuomo became, then and now, amid clips of him speaking and photos of his public life.

“I believe my father’s spirit lives in the hope of a young boy sitting in a failing public school,” the younger Cuomo says in the video, which was screened at a gathering of the New York Democratic delegation on Thursday morning. “His spirit lives in all those outsiders still living in the shadow of opportunity and still striving for their chance to join the family of New York.”

Cuomo, who is set to address the full Democratic National Convention tonight in Philadelphia, told his New York colleagues this morning that he would elaborate on his father’s legacy. The governor listed the progressive causes the state had championed under his watch, which he said had stalled in other states. Such successes, the governor said, was evidence of his father’s philosophy that New York was the progressive capital of the country.

“One of the things he used to talk about is that New York has an obligation to itself, and New York has an obligation to the nation,” Cuomo told the delegates. “The ultimate goal for us is to set the bar very high and accomplish it so the other states follow.”

Despite a strain of anti-establishment fervor in the country, few sensed the governor was taking a risky approach by introducing himself on a national stage as an heir of a political giant. Rather, they said he would tap into Democrats’ fond memories of his father. His preview on Thursday morning even managed to appeal to some of the more reluctant Bernie Sanders delegates in the room.

One risk, however, is failing to do enough to differentiate himself from his father on the national stage and as a distinct, modern politician. Some of the policies popular during the 1980s, when Mario Cuomo served, are not viewed favorably now. And the two have different temperaments, upbringings and public narratives, said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.

“The Cuomo name means a lot to Democrats,” Greer said. “He’s got to make sure that people maybe know he’s got the work ethic and fundamental beliefs of his dad, but it would be a risky strategy to be like, ‘I’m Cuomo 2.0’ He’s not. … His father has a really unique, immigrant story. And in many ways, Andrew Cuomo grew up as an elite.”

State Sen. José Serrano, the son of a long-time congressman, is familiar with this balancing act. Serrano said there are inherent advantages and disadvantages to being the son of an iconic politician: A parent’s reputation may bring built-in support, but it also comes with the task of convincing some constituents that he is not coasting on his work – all while trying to carve out his own space and still paying tribute to his father’s legacy.

“The governor has done a very good job of carrying forth a lot of the principles that his father fought for in very different times,” Serrano said. “I feel a great deal of empathy for his position because I feel the same way in trying to carve out my own area of positions and my own area of interests, while at the same time, paying tribute to the important work that my dad has done and continues to do.”

Cuomo’s decision to delve into his father’s work is wise – and may help him as he gets another shot at bolstering his national standing, according to Larry Levy, who covered New York politics as a reporter and now works as executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.

“Most people don’t expect him to be Mario, and they’d be perfectly happy to hear an Andrew who can channel not just the voice but the vision and show how a progressive can get things done,” Levy said. “He’ll be very warmly received, and has a chance to certainly help his stock rise again – because he was on a shortlist for a while to be a presidential candidate.”

At the gathering of New York’s Democratic delegates on Thursday, this strategy seemed to play well with those on different wings of the Democratic Party. New York’s congressional dean, Rep. Charles Rangel, said Cuomo couldn’t escape comparisons to his father if he wanted to. Rangel shrugged off the suggestion that some voters might look negatively at establishment politicians, such as those who had the way paved by parents who were elected officials. “You’re talking to the wrong guy,” Rangel said. “People sent me to Congress 23 times in 46 years.”  

Meanwhile, Mike McCabe, a Sanders delegate from Red Hook, said he is not generally a big fan of Cuomo, but enjoyed his speech and saw the value in him paying homage to his father.

“I don’t think that would be a problem,” McCabe said of the disdain for party elites. “Only because of who his father was.”

Sarina Trangle