Mario Cuomo’s Brooklyn Roots: From Court Street Lawyer to governor
Although the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who died on Thursday, was born and grew up in Queens, his formative legal experiences were in Brooklyn — both at St. John’s Law School, which was then on Schermerhorn Street, and later on Court Street.
He also represented Long Island College Hospital (LICH) before that institution’s ill-fated affiliations with Continuum Health Partners and SUNY Downstate.
On Monday, hundreds of mourners waited in front of a funeral home in a line that stretched more than a block to pay their respects to Cuomo, who died just hours after his son was sworn in for a second term. Among the prominent individuals who came to Cuomo’s wake on Madison Avenue were U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a lifelong Brooklynite; actor Alan Alda and former state Comptroller Carl McCall.
Inside, Cuomo’s casket was draped with the state flag, and his widow, Matilda, stood by it. Photographs told Cuomo’s story, from a black-and-white image of him playing stickball on the streets of Queens to Cuomo holding a Wheaties cereal box with his image on it.
Those who remember Cuomo from his Brooklyn days recall a dedicated, consummate professional.
Cuomo went to St. John’s University for both undergraduate studies and law, with some time off to pursue a baseball career that ended when he was hit by a fastball while playing for a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team.
As The New York Times pointed out, after he graduated law school in 1956, even though he was at the top of his class, he was rejected by one law firm after another — in his view, because he was an Italian-American. One legal colleague advised him to change his name to Mark Conrad.
After clerking for Judge Adrian Burke of the New York Court of Appeals, he joined the law firm of Corner, Weisbrod, Froeb & Charles at 32 Court St. in 1963. He stayed with the firm until 1975, when he was appointed as New York’s secretary of state. An article in The Atlantic in 1990 by Charles C. Mann said Cuomo “won case after case and built up his firm’s litigation department.”
“Mario Cuomo, just like many of the lawyers on Court Street, used to come into Jewels by Satnick at 50 Court St. [now on State Street] to buy a gift for his wife on Christmas or other occasions,” says Steve Cohn, longtime Downtown Brooklyn attorney and civic leader. “I know because I worked there during high school, college and law school.
“He knew a lot of the people in Brooklyn, and he was appointed to his first political position [as secretary of state] by Gov. Hugh Carey, a Brooklyn guy.” Cohn also said that as an attorney for LICH, Cuomo tried to help the beleaguered institution, but that it ultimately “proved pointless.”
Also speaking about LICH, Salvatore “Buddy” Scotto, owner of Scotto’s Funeral Home on 1st Place and a longtime community leader in Carroll Gardens, said, “I was on the board of regents LICH, and the hospital was losing millions of dollars every month. They just assumed that the governor would always bail it out. It was clear to me that it wasn’t being managed properly.
“Mario [as lawyer for the hospital] and I used to discuss the situation, and he agreed with me.” However, at the time, Cuomo didn’t have enough influence to make a change in the situation, said Scotto. Scotto resigned from the board when LICH affiliated with Continuum in the late 1980s. By that time, Cuomo was governor.
In general, said Scotto, “We [in the neighborhood] supported Cuomo. The Carroll Gardens Association, the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, AMICO [the American Italian Coalition of Organizations] went for him every time that he ran. I used to campaign for him with his wife, Matilda.
“Many of the regular Democrats didn’t support him, but the people did, and they made him governor. He represented the truth, and the truth is the truth, whether Democrat or Republican,” said Scotto.
Cuomo was not universally liked. Chuck Otey, longtime Brooklyn attorney and Pro Bono Barrister columnist for this newspaper, said that Cuomo “was regarded as arrogant and aloof by many, and he was known for his tendency to go against the political grain, especially when it came to Brooklyn Democratic politics.
“He never had any friends in the Democratic power structure. He looks much better in perspective than he did in reality.”
Still, Cuomo’s appeal reached out across party lines. “He was on Court Street, and I was working at the Corporation Counsel’s Office in Brooklyn,” recalls 93-year-old attorney George J. Siracuse, now practicing in Staten Island. “He was a Democrat, and I was a Republican. Still, I was disappointed when he decided not to run for president.”
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment