Death Penalty, Principled Politicians and Mario Cuomo

Joe Klein in Time recalls a telling anecdote about former three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo, who died January 1, 2015:

I remember Mario best on the stump in the 1982 gubernatorial primary, running against Ed Koch—who was, like, 30 or so points ahead at the beginning of the race. Koch was hammering away on the death penalty. The polls said the people were for it, overwhelmingly. Koch was for it. Cuomo was against it.

And Cuomo made it the central issue of his campaign. We went from town to town in upstate New York, just a few of us—all the press and smart money were with Koch at that point. Mario would hold town meetings, knowing viscerally that he could only win their votes if they knew what kind of man he was. And he needed the death penalty for that. If they didn’t ask him about it, he’d ask them, “Doesn’t anyone want to ask me about the death penalty?”

He would tell them whether they wanted to hear it or not. He would tell the story of how one of his daughters was accosted by a thug on the street in Queens who burned her breast with a cigarette. “Did I want to murder that guy? Absolutely. My son Andrew got into the car with a baseball bat, looking for the guy. I would have torn him apart with my bare hands if I’d ever found him … But would have that been the right thing? No. It would have been the barbaric thing to do. That’s what we have government for—to protect us from the barbaric side of human nature.” The state, as an exemplar of moral rectitude, had to abide by the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

People would come up to him after the meetings and say, “I’m still not sure I agree with you on the death penalty, but I certainly respect your position.” In the end, they decided to vote for him. They voted for him because Mario Cuomo was a man to respect, a man who respected them well enough to tell them what they didn’t want to hear.

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