By Cary Brunswick
The recent death of former Gov. Mario Cuomo offered people in New York state and around the nation a chance to recall the days when liberals were truly progressive -- and proud of it.
But his ascent to the governor’s mansion in 1982 was quite a surprise. I remember being shocked that he defeated Ed Koch in the Democratic primary. Most upstaters thought Koch would win handily even though the New York mayor had disparaged Upstate in an interview.
``Who is this guy Cuomo,’’ many were asking the day after the Democratic primary. By the time he won the November election, we knew.
I met Mario Cuomo once, after attending a press conference in Albany in 1992 with a group of the state’s editorial writers. What he had was charisma, an aura, or what a New York Times writer called a ``compelling public presence.’’ The nation experienced that at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, where he was the keynote speaker.
He bluntly tarnished the ``shining city’’ image that President Reagan had used to describe America.
``There's another part to the shining city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.
``In this part of the city,’’ he continued, ``there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it.’’
The speech helped launch and polish Cuomo’s national political star, and we assumed he would be running for president one day. He reneged, however, in both 1988 and 1992, and the political history books remember him most for not running during those elections.
As surprised as we might have been at his victories in 1982, we perhaps were even more so in 1994 when, seeking a fourth term, he was defeated by little-known George Pataki. Since then, we’ve had Spitzer, Patterson and now Mario’s son, Andrew, who was sworn in Jan. 1, just hours before his father died.
The message Mario Cuomo delivered 30 years ago at that DNC, blasting Reagan at the height of his presidency, stands out to this day because it’s substance still rings true, even after 14 years of Democratic leadership in the White House. Progressives of today remain the messengers of those liberal ideals: the necessity to address economic inequality in all its manifestations, in income, in education, and in health care.
Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who twice sought the Democratic nomination for president, wrote in the Huffington Post last week of his wishes for the coming year. There are hopes and an agenda because:
``Our nation's government has been taken over by special interest groups and ideologues, who have rapidly distributed our nation's wealth upwards, built a national security state to protect its hold on power and wealth, involved America in destructive, unnecessary wars abroad, ignored the escalating violence at home, and broken the laws of our nation with impunity, while punishing those who expose their unlawfulness.’’
These problems can be solved, according to Kucinich, who was too liberal to have a chance at winning the Democratic nod for the presidency.
All we have to do, he says, is restore the constitutional monetary system that was handed over to bankers, repeal the Patriot Act and stop the intrusions of the NSA, end our wars abroad and focus on the needs of our own people at home, and take seriously the warning about climate change and other threats to our environment.
We have indeed tarished our ``shining city,’’ and restoring its sheen will not be easy, especially with a Republican-dominated Congress beginning its new term today. Already, the GOP leaders are ready to flex their muscles by pushing the Keystone XL pipeline, which would be a regressive step linked to much of what is wrong in our nation.
It is no wonder that people are cynical and feel hopeless about government, as was shown by the drastically low turnout during the November election.
But, as another progressive liberal, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, offered as a message for 2015, we cannot give up on democracy, because that is exactly what the bankers and corporations want.
Reich says we need ``to get more people fighting for equal opportunity and shared prosperity. Never underestimate what we can, and will, accomplish together.’’
Yes, little has really changed since Mario Cuomo offered his ``tale of two cities’’ in 1984.