Ithaca, N.Y. — About three decades ago, Irene Stein wasn’t particularly involved in local politics.
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Then one day, Stein’s husband came back from a trip to New York City. He had met then-candidate Mario Cuomo — the former NY governor who died last week — and been impressed.
Irene Stein learned more about Mario Cuomo and was also impressed. Stein volunteered to help Cuomo’s campaign against Ed Koch; “That’s when I got more involved” in local politics, she says. Irene Stein has now been chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Party for over 25 years.
Cuomo died last Thursday at the age of 82. Stein, who helped in his campaign against Ed Koch in the Democratic primary for governor of New York, said Cuomo became a call to action for many progressives in the Ithaca area both during his campaign and during his governorship. (Cuomo would go on to serve three terms, from 1983 to 1994.)
“Mario was seen as a hero,” Stein said. “He was so articulate in expressing his beliefs, but people could really rally around and connect with [him] … we had lots of people coming forward like myself to help his campaign.”
Stein was careful not to overstate Cuomo’s impact on Ithaca’s progressives. But she does say it’s clear the former governor made a difference.
“He threw a large stone into the pool of public opinion, and he aroused a lot of the liberal sentiment that people have around here,” Stein said.
“It was dormant; perhaps it wasn’t as strong as it came to be and I think he was a factor in that.”
Stein wasn’t alone in calling Mario Cuomo — father of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a major inspiration.
“He was a man who deeply loved his wife and children, and who relished the intellectual and political life. He will be missed by all of us who were inspired by his vision and message,” said Barbara Lifton, the Ithaca area’s representative in the New York State Assembly.
Jean McPheeters, former president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, served as the chair of the Democratic Committee in Tompkins County before Stein.
She fondly remembers meeting the governor — both during a tour of Cornell after meeting him at the airport, and again at the Executive Mansion in Albany, where she visited with other Democratic county chairs.
Mario Cuomo was “a very impressive person,” McPheeters said. “That voice — which his son has gotten as well — is so distinct.”
“I come from Brooklyn so I totally connected with the immigrant family and Catholic education,” McPheeters said.
Cuomo was a Roman Catholic, known for his passionate speeches, including a now-famous speech given as the keynote speaker of the Democratic National Convention in 1984, in which he criticized President Ronald Reagan.
“Mr. President,” Cuomo said during the speech, “you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’”
McPheeters described Cuomo as “eloquent, hard-nosed, and soft-hearted.” McPheeter said Cuomo made it easier for students to vote where they went to school.
“In this community, that made an enormous difference,” she added.
Republican State Senator Thomas O’Mara, who represents Ithaca in Albany, never worked with Cuomo, but noted the Democrat’s role in several different accomplishments.
“If you take a close look back over those years of the administration of Mario Cuomo,” the senator said in a statement to The Voice, “you’ll discover that in terms of vital infrastructure improvements, farmland preservation, the growth of the grape and wine industry, public safety, education, and in many other areas, Governor Mario Cuomo listened to and worked with our local representatives at that time to achieve some important goals that continue to make a difference.”
He added: “Mario Cuomo truly believed and understood that New York State could only be as strong as the strength of all of our regions, upstate and downstate, rural and urban, city or town.”
Dr. Henrik Dullea, who served as Mario Cuomo’s director of state operations, is a Cornell graduate who is now retired in Ithaca. This week, Dullea went downstate for Cuomo’s funeral.
“My office was three down from his,” Dullea said. “He would walk in and pepper you with questions and telephone constantly.”
Dullea said Mario Cuomo was a principled advocate for sticking up for those without a voice in politics. As a boss, he was both demanding and rewarding to work under, according to Dullea.
“By 7 a.m. or 7:30 my phone would be ringing at home and there would be questions: ‘What’s going on with this?’ ‘What’s going on with that?,’” Dullea said. “And you had to be prepared.”