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5 Policies That Defined Mario Cuomo’s Progressive Legacy

CREDIT: Louis Lanzano/ AP

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D)

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) died of natural causes due to heart failure Thursday, the same day his son Andrew Cuomo was inaugurated for a second term as governor of New York. He was 82.

In a press statement issued Thursday, President Obama called Cuomo “a determined champion of progressive values, and an unflinching voice for tolerance, inclusiveness, fairness, dignity, and opportunity.” Echoing similar sentiments, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) issued a statement saying that Cuomo’s “values, his vision, and his effectiveness for the people of New York were an inspiration around the world. In word and deed, Governor Cuomo challenged us to make real the American Dream for all who strive to realize it.” Other liberal heavyweights like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also weighed in, calling the former governor “compassionate.”

Hailed as a progressive giant, the former governor, who served three terms as the 52nd governor of New York between 1983 to 1994, championed the rights of working people, middle class families, women, and minorities, setting the stage for liberalism during a time that the political philosophy was “in decline,” the Washington Post pointed out. Cuomo’s “Shining City on a Hill” speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention — deemed one of the greatest speeches of all time — challenged then-President Ronald Reagan (R) to visit rural areas of America and to help lift working people into the middle class. Cuomo charged, “Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.'”

Here is just a short list of some of Cuomo’s most progressive causes and accomplishments:

1. Fought for legal abortion. In spite of his strong Roman Catholic belief, Cuomo fought for women to receive legal abortions in New York State. “Those who endorse legalized abortions — aren’t a ruthless, callous alliance of anti-Christians determined to overthrow our moral standards,” Cuomo said in a 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame. “In many cases, the proponents of legal abortion are the very people who have worked with Catholics to realize the goals of social justice set out in papal encyclicals.”

2. Passed nation’s first mandatory seat-belt law. After a 11-year battle in the New York state legislature, Cuomo signed into law the nation’s first mandatory seat-belt law in 1984. Prior to the law’s passage, only about 12 percent of people buckled up, but that figure has since shot up to 91 percent in 2013 in New York state. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that in 2011, seat belts saved an estimated 11,949 lives.

3. Vetoed the death penalty. For the 12 years he served as governor, Cuomo vetoed the death penalty several times, against public mood at a turbulent time when the crime rate soared in New York. Calling the death penalty “corrosive” and a “stain on our conscience” in 2011, Cuomo lamented that the 48 executions in 2008 were “an abomination” and that the death penalty is unfairly applied across racial lines. Counting the last 18 people in New York State to be executed after 1963, Cuomo found that 13 individuals were black and one Hispanic, “an extraordinary improbability for a system operating with any kind of objectivity and consistency.”

4. Reshaped the New York State Court of Appeals with a diverse group of sitting judges. Cuomo appointed the state’s first African-American, a Hispanic, and two women justices to New York’s highest court, the State Court of Appeals. Judith S. Kaye was the first woman to serve as chief judge. According to a 2013 Albany Law Review piece, Cuomo “remains the last New York State Governor to appoint a Court of Appeals judge from the opposing political party.”

5. Supported banning assault weapons. The former governor has been a longtime opponent of banning assault weapons used in a quarter of the crimes committed in New York state. According to a 1994 New York Magazine article, Cuomo “has supported an assault-weapons ban that is far more serious than the federal one Bill Clinton is poised to sign — it would ban the guns used in a quarter of the crimes in New York — though so far the State Senate has blocked it.” Guns “encourage that instinct we have for brutality that’s everywhere around us,” Cuomo said in 2006 to a group called New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. “My God. How do you justify it? You can’t move the NRA in Congress.”