Twenty-two years ago this week, Mario Cuomo was leading the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary polls. Only thing was, he wasn’t a candidate.
There were write-in efforts under way in New Hampshire, by Wes Stinson of Milford and Murray Onigman of Manchester, and in New York and nationally. But Cuomo was unwavering. His decision had been made, and it was final.
Indeed, the former New York governor, who died yesterday at age 82, created one of the most memorable moments in New Hampshire primary history.
Cuomo had toyed for months with the prospect of running for President, and there were a long list of New Hampshire Democrats, some of them still prominent players today, who were ready to sign on.
Six days before Christmas, 1991, former state Democratic Party chairman Joe Grandmaison, who had been the party’s nominee for governor in 1990, had arrangements in place for a major Cuomo announcement event in front of the State House. Grandmaison said Friday that when he heard of Cuomo’s passing on Thursday, he thought of the drama immediately.
Cuomo was to fly into New Hampshire the following day, Dec. 20, the final day of the filing period for the 1992 primary, walk into Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s office, and file for President. He would then hold a news conference, and then walk Main Street in Concord, shaking hands and visiting businesses. Good old-fashioned retail campaigning, New Hampshire style.
Cuomo was the frontrunner, but he was not yet a candidate. His entrance would have changed a nip and tuck Democratic race, and perhaps history.
Grandmaison said at the time he had a seven-page list of Granite Staters who had pledged support to Cuomo. Everything was ready. The only uncertainty was Cuomo himself.
Cuomo was wrestling with a New York state budget standoff with the Republican legislature in that state.
“’It all goes right back to that original concern on the budget crisis and a belief that to have that behind him would offer the best possible scenario to serve not only the State of New York but also his candidacy,” Grandmaison said at the time. “’If the budget is resolved, one would assume that he will fly up and file. If the budget is not resolved, he still maintains the option of not permitting that to hold him back.”
Not only was the media focused on Cuomo’s decision, but so were his Democratic rivals.
One of them, a man named Bill Clinton, the governor of the small southern state of Arkansas, said, “I’ve always felt he would wait until the last day to run because he’s got national name recognition, he lives in a national media center and he can raise all the money he needs on Manhattan Island.”
The following day, of course, with the plane on the tarmac in Albany, Cuomo decided not to run. He said his first responsibility was to deal with his state’s budget problems, and those problems could not be resolved in time. At least that was the publicly stated reason.
“Were it not, I would travel to New Hampshire today and file my name as a candidate in (New Hampshire’s) presidential primary,”’ Cuomo told reporters in Albany.
“It would have been nice to run for President…it just didn’t seem to come out right,” he said.
The other Democratic presidential candidates at the time were pleased to have the shadow of Cuomo removed from the race after speculation for the better part of a year.
One of them, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, said Cuomo “would have been a colossus, an overarching figure. With him out, this nomination is very much up for grabs.”
Grandmaison, obviously disappointed, said that instead of working with Cuomo planning presidential campaign strategy, he would go off on a Caribbean vacation over the Christmas holiday. He eventually endorsed Clinton, who finished second to the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary. Clinton was the “Comeback Kid” on Primary Day, Feb. 18, 1992. Cuomo received 4 percent of the vote as a write-in, and a few days later, formally asked his supporters to end the effort.
And Mario Cuomo delivered Clinton’s nomination address later that summer at the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. In the front row during that convention was a delegation of Democrats from New Hampshire, and a small contingent of Granite State reporters.
Looking back on Friday, Grandmaison said, “I remember thinking that this is the best campaign I’ve ever been involved in because it only lasted seven days.”
He said the chairman of the New York Democratic Party at the time, John Marino, was a friend, and “asked me if I’d be inclined to support Mario Cuomo, and we discussed it for a while.
“I went about putting things in place,” he said, recalling it was easy to gather supporters.
“Even though there was no legal requirement for him to be here personally,” Grandmaison said, “it was taken as a measure of the importance he placed on the primary if he came up and did it himself.”
But as a backup, Grandmaison recalled, Cuomo had signed a certificate of candidacy and had it delivered to him. He later returned it.
“It would have been a hell of a thing to still have,” he said.
Grandmaison believed that Cuomo would run until the moment he was told that there would be no candidacy.
“Over the past couple of days there has been more and more coming out about why he decided not to run,” Grandmaison said. “One thoughtful observer said he believe Cuomo was just never successful in putting his head around the fact that he should be President.”