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Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who passed into the spirit world on the first day of the New Year, was “a steadfast ally” and “a truly great man.”

Remembering Mario Cuomo: A Political Giant, Magician and Ally

Gale Courey Toensing
1/5/15

He has been called “a giant in New York politics,” “an oratorical magician who electrified liberals,” “intelligent and compelling,” and “Hamlet on the Hudson.” But to Indian country, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who passed into the spirit world on the first day of the New Year, was “a steadfast ally” and “a truly great man.”

RELATED: Former Gov. Mario Cuomo a ‘Steadfast Ally’ Passes On

The family of the former governor announced that he passed away from natural causes due to heart failure on the evening of January 1, 2015, at home with his loving family at his side. He was 82 years of age.

Cuomo was the 52nd governor of New York State, serving as the state’s Chief Executive for three terms from 1983 through 1994. He was credited with simultaneously improving the business environment of New York and the quality of life for its citizens, despite a national recession at the time.

The former governor died just hours after his son Andrew was inaugurated into his second term as governor. Cuomo could not attended the ceremony, but the younger Cuomo honored his father in a speech.

"He is in the heart and mind of every person who is here," Andrew Cuomo said. "He is here and he is here, and his inspiration and his legacy and his experience is what has brought this state to this point. So let's give him a round of applause."

Since Cuomo’s death was announced tributes to the former Democratic leader by politicians, dignitaries and admirers from around the country and the world have filled the media. Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, was among the first to honor the former governor.

 “Today, all New Yorkers mourn the loss of a truly great man, Governor Mario Cuomo,” Halbritter said in a statement. “Governor Cuomo was a historic leader and true statesman. He understood that one of the most important roles of a public servant is to work to bring people together for the common good. He committed his life to making sure that when it comes to public policy, everyone – not just the powerful – were represented.”

For the Oneida Nation, Halbritter said, “Gov. Cuomo was a steadfast ally. He was the leader who forged New York State’s first modern-day sovereignty agreement with our people. That agreement helped further cement our right to self-determination and self-sufficiency and put Central New York on a path toward sustainable shared prosperity.”

The friendship between the Nation and the governor was cemented in April 1993 when Cuomo signed a gaming compact allowing the Oneida Indian Nation to open New York State's first high-stakes gaming casino in more than a century. The Nation’s Turning Stone Resort Casino has since become the economic engine of Central New York, employing more than 4,000 people.

In 2013, the Oneida Nation kicked off its 20-year anniversary of the Turning Stone Resort and Casino with a recorded video featuring Cuomo and Halbritter.

“In the last 20 years, the world seems to me to be coming apart with dissension, with the inability to work together,” Cuomo says in the video. “What the Oneida Nation has done is to give us a lesson in collaboration. It is the magic word – collaboration. …  What we hoped for 20 years ago has become a reality because of collaboration.”

The video can be seen here.

President Barack Obama offered his condolences in a statement, calling Cuomo "a determined champion of progressive values, and an unflinching voice for tolerance, inclusiveness, fairness, dignity, and opportunity… His own story taught him that as Americans, we are bound together as one people, and our country's success rests on the success of all of us, not just a fortunate few." He extended his sympathies to Cuomo’s family and friends, “and New Yorkers who loved him dearly.”

Known as an eloquent and powerful speaker, Cuomo was indeed lauded for his ability to merge the story of his humble beginning with his calls for social justice for everyone. In many ways the embodied, he embodied the American Dream.

Born June 15, 1932, in Queens, a borough of New York City, to Italian immigrants Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo, Cuomo grew up at the back of a grocery shop his parents owned. Like immigrant parents everywhere, Cuomo’s parents encouraged him to do well in school. He attended St. John's University in New York City, and after graduating summa cum laude in 1953, he spent a summer playing minor league baseball in Georgia for a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. His professional baseball career ended after he was hit in the head by a pitch and spent several days in a hospital.

Cuomo graduated from St. John's Law School in 1956, tied for the top of his class, became an advisor to Judge Adrian P. Burke that same year and then entered private practice in 1958. He also was a professor at St. John's law school throughout the s60s, and chaired the University Alumni Federation.

Cuomo served in private and public practice for 18 busy years before being elected governor in 1983. In 1972 he gained public recognition for his mediation of the conflict over the Forest Hills housing project that built low-income housing in the middle-income traditionally liberal, mostly Jewish enclave of Forest Hills. The controversy inflamed race relations but over the years, the opponents' fears of crime and other social ills proved unwarranted.

Cuomo was appointed to serve as the Secretary of State of New York in 1975 and in 1978 he was elected as Lieutenant Governor. He came under national attention in 1984 when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in which he talked about the lessons he learned as the son of a grocer in New York.

"I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day," Cuomo told the crowd. "I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet — a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language — who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example."

The keynote address came to be known as Cuomo’s “Tale of Two Cities” speech in which he used Dickens’ famous 19th century novel about class and poverty in London as a metaphor about the rich and poor in America. The speech was a direct challenge to then-President Ronald Reagan’s claim that all Americans were prospering as if they were living in the biblical “city on a hill.”

Cuomo was urged by the Democratic Party to run for president in 1988 and 1992. He ultimately decided to stay in New York but his public agonizing over whether to run or not to run earned him the title "Hamlet on the Hudson."

The New York Times called Cuomo “a liberal beacon,” pointing, among other things, to his defense of a woman’s right to choose abortion. In a 1984 speech, Cuomo, a devout Roman Catholic explained that his faith did not mean he had to comply with church teachings in his role as politician. “To assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.”

In 1994, Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth term to George Pataki, a Republican state legislator who had promised to cut taxes and bring back the death penalty. It was a huge disappointment. "I wanted to win this more than any political contest I ever had," Cuomo said, according to the Christian Science Monitor. "I'm not good at wanting things in life. I've made a habit of not wanting things too much."

Calling hours for the former governor will be on Monday, January 5 from 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, located at 1076 Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

A funeral service will be held on Tuesday, January 6 at 11:00 a.m. at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, located at 980 Park Avenue in Manhattan. The Cuomo family said in a release that funeral is not private – it is open to family and friends.

Individual members of the media wishing to attend the funeral service must RSVP to [email protected] by 12:00 p.m. on Monday, January 5. Due to space limitations, the Church may not be able to accommodate all reporters wishing to attend. Credentials will be emailed to those who RSVP on Monday evening. Pooled video and photography will be arranged. The service will be streamed live online and satellite coordinates will be provided to television stations.

In place of flowers, the Cuomo family requests contributions to be made to HELP USA for the Mario M. Cuomo Mentoring Fund:

HELP USA

Attention: Joe Gallo

5 Hanover Square, 17th Floor

New York, NY 10004

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