THE BLOG
01/05/2015 08:38 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

The Governors Cuomo

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It was deeply poignant that Governor Mario Cuomo passed away on New Year's Day, 2015, the very same day his son Andrew was sworn into his second term as New York's governor. The Cuomos, father and son, remind us of the power of public service and the need to couple principles and ideals with pragmatism and the exercise of power and authority. We seek progress, but we also seek stability. We know that an unarmed man should not lose his life while being arrested. We know that two police officers protecting a public housing project should not be assassinated sitting in their patrol car. People have the right to protest police behavior they disagree with, but the police have the right and, indeed, the responsibility to protect themselves and the rest of us from violence and disorder. The search is for compromise and balance and learning how to live together with freedom but also with peace, security and order. Mario sought -- and Andrew seeks -- this balance.

Mario Cuomo, the son of immigrants, was a tough, sometimes stubborn, but often brilliant and principled leader. In his most famous speech he took on the image of Ronald Reagan's fabled shining city on a hill by articulating the counter image of a tale of two cities -- one privileged, the other not. Mario Cuomo talked about America as a family, and in his 1984 convention speech gave us the image of a wagon train headed toward the American Dream that was characterized by its effort to include everyone: every race, every nation, every income level and every religion. Bill de Blasio revived the tale of two cities theme in his campaign to become mayor of New York City. The tale of two cities is an inescapable one in a place like New York City. Forty percent of the people who live here were born in other countries. About 400,000 New Yorkers live in public housing projects. There are almost 60,000 homeless people in New York City, many of them children. In the face of this poverty, 4.6 percent of the city's population are millionaires, and the city that never sleeps is home to 87 billionaires.

This is a city of stark contrasts. It is what David Dinkins' once termed a "gorgeous mosaic," not a melting pot, but a place of many distinct and diverse communities. However, when you step back and no longer focus on the individual tiles of the mosaic, a picture of the entire city emerges. It is a stunning and distinctive image. New York is a place of great energy, intensity, industry, community, art and human accomplishment. It is a true world city, a city of immigrants, but it is also a place of poverty, misery, loneliness and potential danger.

Mario Cuomo was a son of that city and he understood the fear and aspirations of his Queens neighbors as they struggled to maintain their grip on the American Dream. He got his start in politics negotiating compromises between his neighbors and a New York City government that was intent on building athletic fields and housing projects in middle-class neighborhoods. He understood that New York was then, and is today, continuously reinventing itself. The neighborhoods in New York are constantly circulating and changing. But he knew that communities must retain some capacity to shape those transitions. Governor Mario Cuomo had the unique ability to listen and mediate disputes behind the scenes, and to then step to the lectern to articulate, in moving rhetoric, the principles he was working to promote.

As Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his inaugural address on New Year's Day it was clear that he had his father on his mind and the cadence and voice he spoke with brought both Governors Cuomo into the room. It has been over three decades since Mario Cuomo's inspiring political rhetoric at the 1984 Democratic Convention: a sharp, but still respectful discourse with "Mr. President" Ronald Reagan. The political environment that Andrew Cuomo governs in has delegitimized discussion of public entitlements for poor people. Mario could call himself a liberal, Andrew cannot. A 1980 conservative would be considered a moderate today. Mario Cuomo and his contemporaries lost their battle with Reagan, and the modern Democratic Party of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama struggled for two decades to bring universal health care to the political agenda. In the end, only the support of the drug and health care industries enabled America to enact this half-century old liberal dream.

But both of the Governors named Cuomo have been determined to build an expansive, inclusionary American Dream. That was clear in the message of Governor Andrew Cuomo's New Year's Day speech when he observed:

Four years ago when I took office...more people were unemployed than at any time since the Great Depression... Upstate New York was hemorrhaging young people. You would go to the airports and you would see young people getting on planes because they believed there was no future left in upstate New York...I said at my first inauguration that we can't underestimate the severity of the times. That this was not a moment for more speeches, it was about action. It was about results and it was not about rhetoric. And that is what we did - we made the government work.... This state today has 7.6 million jobs, more than have ever existed in the history of the State of New York...We put cranes in the sky in places that thought they were extinct. We expanded affordable housing, we passed universal Pre-K, we gave hard-working families a tax cut. We expanded healthcare, 1.5 million more New Yorkers are covered now then were before. We made New York fairer with marriage equality, we made New York safer by passing sensible gun control. We set a national standard and committed this state to be the first state in the nation to end the AIDS epidemic in the next decade and we are going to do it.

We did this. And the emphasis is on the "We." "We" are the upstate business people who choose to stay and continue to hope. "We" are the public employees; the teachers, the police, the firefighters who serve and protect..."We" are Republicans and Democrats who put New York first and political party second even in this age of hyper partisanship. Because we remembered what we were there to do, which was to serve the public and not serve our political interests.

This focus on family and community has been a recurring theme for both Mario and Andrew Cuomo. It was difficult to watch Andrew's speech the other day and not think about his father. His father's determination, tenacity and sense of principle caused him to oppose the death penalty and support abortion rights throughout his time in office. Mario Cuomo was far from perfect, but he left a legacy worthy of memory. Andrew Cuomo begins his second term invoking the powerful image of "we" -- of what his father used to call the "family of New York." The challenge for the surviving Governor Cuomo is to build on that legacy, that memory and that emotion that many of us felt on January 1: to reach for vision a little more, and settle for pragmatic deals a little less; to exercise the courage of his convictions, and be willing to lose the "good fight" every so often. This will be the fifth term of the Governors Cuomo. Perhaps this will be the moment when potential translates into performance and permanence.