Thousands of mourners who waited in a block-long line for as long as two hours paid their respects Monday to former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who died Jan. 1. The wake included political protégés who said they loved him and one-time opponents who said they deeply respected the three-term governor.
Along with Vice President Joseph Biden, actor Alan Alda and TV journalist Diane Sawyer, many of the mourners were just New Yorkers who held framed pictures of Cuomo with their younger selves or with their children. They shared fond stories of the 82-year-old's renowned intellect, oratory and biting humor at the private service with Cuomo's son, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and Mario Cuomo's wife, Matilda. A private funeral is scheduled Tuesday.
"He really inspired people," said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat who first worked as an assemblyman with Cuomo in 1975.
"This man started out from the hardscrabble streets of Queens and he goes to the highest pinnacles of our political life and he did it because he believed in New York, he believed in America, and most of all he believed in the power of an individual to accomplish great things. And he did," Schumer said outside the Manhattan funeral home. "He was a giant."
Former political foes said Cuomo, and the way he waged his liberal campaigns, were emblematic of a different and better time in political discourse.
"He had a kind of courage that is missing today in politics," said former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. "Even though he and I may have differed on certain philosophies, I respected him for standing up for the things he believed in."
"We disagreed on everything," said state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long. "But he served New York well. I enjoyed sparring with him."
Mario Cuomo was New York's 52nd governor and served a rare three terms, from 1983 to 1994. Much of his tenure was dominated by New York's economic problems and political fights reflecting deep divisions between upstate and downstate interests.
While he presided over the largest expansion of prisons in state history, he also was an unwavering protector of abortion rights and vetoed bills that would have revived the death penalty as crime soared along with public support for capital punishment.
"He stood in principle and he lost his election by standing on principle -- opposing the death penalty -- and he has been proven right," said Assemb. Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) as she stood in line Monday.
Assemb. Keith Wright (D-Manhattan) worked closely with Cuomo early in his career in Albany, where there was some natural tension between the executive and the Legislature. But the tension was never sharper than in their regular pick-up basketball games on Tuesday nights.
Wright said he saw Cuomo recently as he battled heart problems. He was warned the governor might not recognize him.
"The first thing he did was put two sharp elbows into my ribs," Wright said with a laugh. "I miss him already . . . it was like losing a member of the family."
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) drew a parallel between Mario Cuomo and the current governor. "One thing about Mario Cuomo, just like Andrew Cuomo, you've got to be prepared," Skelos said. "Mario Cuomo did his homework. When you were read to discuss a bill with him, you had to do your homework."
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said the private viewing included displays of family photos and pictures of Mario Cuomo playing basketball. The casket was closed.
"He was a man of conscience," King said. "He was a man of integrity. He really was different from what we see today."