Those of you not in the United States may be blissfully unaware that Mario Cuomo, a former three term Governor of New York and briefly a feature on the national political scene because of a famous speech he gave at the Democratic National Convention, has died. Mario Cuomo was also the father of the current Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.
There have been many hagiographies in the press in recent days, for example: Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon, Dies at 82, but I think that a personal appreciation is in order when so lauded an example of the good politician has passed into the Great Statehouse in the Sky.
He will always be associated in my mind with several great achievements while Governor of New York, the office in which he is most remembered.
First, a couple of decades ago, he drove my health insurance premiums from about $50 a month to a bit short of $300 a month in a single year. This was done by the expedient of declaring it was unfair that people might have to pay a fortune to get insurance when they were already ill and passing a law requiring insurers to offer health insurance at the same price to all comers regardless of age or pre-existing condition. Whether you were 22 and healthy or 59 and suffering from liver cancer, you could walk up and buy a brand new policy at the same price.
This remarkable idealism has kept New York State at the forefront, the very cutting edge, of insurance premiums. The cost of insurance in New York has never gone down since Cuomo’s sagacious reforms, and indeed usually has lead the U.S. in price. To be fair, part of the cost rise for me was because I could no longer get an indemnity plan with a very large deductible because no insurer wanted to offer one ever again given the change in regulations, but that was only part of it. Now, of course, $280 (or whatever the price was, I confess I would have to check) would be a great bargain — the price has gone up greatly since then.
Affordability has of course been a concern for many politicians since those heady days — there are still some of considerable means who can afford health insurance after all. I’m sure President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, with many similarly brilliant ideas, will eventually fix this — premiums rose another 20% in the last year nationwide — and I look forward to its continued implementation.
Mario Cuomo’s second great achievement was the state takeover of the Long Island Lighting Company, aka LILCO. LILCO was in financial straights because Mario Cuomo himself blocked the opening of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant after it had been fully constructed to the tune of $6 Billion in 1980s dollars. Because LILCO had spent billions on a generating facility it was not allowed to turn on, it was in bad shape and charging high rates to its customers to remain solvent. Mario Cuomo declared the real issue was LILCO mismanagement and that the state could do a far better job running a power company than the private sector (which is, after all, driven only by mindless greed for profits) and so New York State forcibly took over LILCO and turned it into the Long Island Power Authority, AKA LIPA.
LIPA proceeded to spend very little money on maintenance over the next decades, until Hurricane Sandy hit and took out a large fraction of their lines because not even basic tree branch trimming over residential power cabling had been done in decades. Andrew Cuomo, Mario’s son and by now the Governor himself, got on TV after Sandy to angrily and vociferously condemn the horrible mismanagement by LIPA, an agency he personally controlled, but which he somehow failed to mention that he was in fact in complete control of as he told the viewers that he would absolutely hold the parties responsible to account. His father’s role was never mentioned by anyone in the news media, and his own was barely recalled either — somehow they, too, conveniently forgot that he was condemning mismanagement by himself. (I am unfair in saying this — a story buried far into the front section of the New York Times did mention it in connection with a corruption investigation. It seems that a report was prepared by a state commission condemning Andrew Cuomo’s administration for its role in screwing up LIPA, but Andrew Cuomo used his power as Governor to make sure it was never released.)
Mario Cuomo’s third great achievement was to raise taxes repeatedly, making New York State the most heavily taxed in the U.S., and New York City by far the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in the U.S. by virtue of having high city income taxes on top of the state ones. New York State has mysteriously been falling behind other states in population rank — it fell from #2 to #3 and now recently was passed by Florida and is #4 — and industry has been leaving the state for some decades now. (A succeeding Governor, George Pataki, lowered rates a bit, and California raised them further, so New York is no longer #1 in taxation, but Mario Cuomo’s son still has time to uphold family tradition and restore the state to its previous glory.)
Oh, and one minor achievement comes to mind. (Sadly this last point is purely from my memory, and I can’t find easy documentation of it on line, assistance would be welcomed.) During a major newspaper delivery strike (the delivery truck operators were being paid over $100k a year — this is $100k+ decades ago in non-inflation adjusted dollars you understand — with overtime and the papers didn’t think they could afford that any more for unskilled work), Mario Cuomo more or less blocked all investigation of acts of brutal violence by the union’s thugs. It seemed people were going around beating the operators of newspaper kiosks that none the less carried the newspapers in spite of the strike, and similarly beating people who delivered the papers anyway. At the time, Cuomo seemed to feel, much in the manner that President Obama does now about the malfeasance of the Bush administration, that it was best to look forward and not backwards. This was even the case in spite of the fact that the strike was still underway and “forward” hadn’t happened yet.
I can think of little else notable that Mario Cuomo got done while Governor. In spite of lots of lobbying by reform groups he did not push to fix the vicious sentences the state meted out for minor drug crimes. He did not fix the state’s horrible divorce laws, notably at the time some of the worst in the nation. He did not reform the police, or improve educational outcomes, or even deal with the enormous deferred maintenance problems on state highways and bridges. (He did veto the death penalty a few times, which seems to me to have actually been a good thing, though others may argue otherwise.)
However, Mario Cuomo will always be remembered as the man who once gave a very well written speech at a Democratic National Convention, and who really cares if a politician is a corrupt, economically ignorant mismanager if he can deliver words written by other people with a really solid and practiced public speaking style.
I encourage all to mourn his loss in whatever manner they feel appropriate.