From Son of a Sewer-Cleaner to Governor: Mario Cuomo and the American Experience of Waste Work

CuomoOn the day Mario Cuomo’s son Andrew took the oath of office for his second term as governor of New York State, the three-time governor passed away. The obituaries noted this man of humble origins in Queens rose to become a leader in the Democratic party, potential presidential candidate, and originator of a political dynasty.

Mario Cuomo’s death reminded me of another dimension of his humble origins. As recounted on pages 32-34 of Robert S. McElvaine’s Mario Cuomo: A Biography (New York: Scribners, 1988), Cuomo’s parents were immigrants. His father, Andrea, and mother Immaculata, came to the United States from Naples in 1926. Andrea Cuomo lacked a formal education, and initially cleaned storm sewers for five years before saving enough money to open a grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens in 1931.

The Cuomo family’s story is a textbook case of American upward mobility. Andrea Cuomo began his life in the United States doing waste trade work, then rose into owning a small business. His son Mario, after a brief minor-league baseball career, graduated from Saint Johns University and then graduated from St. John’s Law School at the top of his class.

After earning his law degree, Mario Cuomo faced the brunt of discrimination. As recounted in his New York Times obituary:

Mr. Cuomo’s first job in the law was as the confidential assistant to Judge Adrian P. Burke of the New York State Court of Appeals, which Mr. Cuomo would reshape 30 years later by appointing all seven members, including Judith S. Kaye, the first woman to serve as chief judge.

His job with Judge Burke and his law school success — he graduated at the head of his class — led Mr. Cuomo to assume that in entering private practice he would have his pick of New York’s leading law firms. Instead, one after another rejected him, in his view because he was Italian-American. “I obviously am the original ethnic from Queens: my hands, my face, my voice, my inflections,” he said. One lawyer with whom he spoke suggested that he change his name to Mark Conrad, he said. The experience fed a lifelong disdain for anybody who struck Mr. Cuomo as elitist.

Despite this experience, Cuomo became a successful lawyer and, after running unsuccessfully against Ed Koch for mayor of New York City in 1977, became the three-term governor of New York State. If Governor Cuomo felt anti-Italian-American bias, he also had the good fortune and good timing to come of age after World War II. This afforded him opportunities his father did not have.

In my forthcoming book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States from Monticello to Memphis, I discuss the racial and ethnic patterns of waste-trade work in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. These occupations, including garbage collection, scrap trading, janitorial work, laundry work, and related jobs, involved sustained participation from “white ethnics” such as first- and second-generation immigrants from Italy and the Jewish diaspora. These included Cuomo’s father, my great-grandfather, and many others in cities and rural areas across the country. Waste-trade work coincided with derogatory insults, allegations of criminal activity, and attempts to regulate what were considered nuisances out of communities. (Mario Cuomo faced the residue of these stereotypes as the 1988 Bush-Quayle campaign whispered allegations of organized crime activity. That said, these allegations came after he had advanced to hold the highest office in New York State and was a serious contender for the presidency.)

After World War II, a transition occurred in which these “white ethnics” became white….and moved away from working in the waste trades. Andrea Cuomo’s experience of sending his son to college and white-collar work was reflected in the experiences of waste workers across the country. Sometimes, as in the case of the Jewish-owned Luria Brothers scrap recycling firm, the next generation received graduate educations in law and business, and then returned to manage the company. Others in the next generation took their formal educations and left waste businesses behind entirely. Governors Mario Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo had the opportunity to build upon the hard work of Andrea Cuomo to create a political dynasty.

If this multi-generational Horatio Alger story bode well for the children of pre-war waste workers, it had a troubling dimension. Between 1940 and 1970, the burden of waste work fell in greater intensity on African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican-Americans. In addition to residential segregation, disparities in education, employment opportunities, and income, people who were not able to benefit from white privilege bore greater and greater environmental burdens in their work. The final two chapters of Clean and White tell this portion of American history and how they provide context for the rise of the Environmental Justice movement.

The accomplished life of Mario Cuomo offers much to reflect upon as he is laid to rest. How his family’s story relates to the opportunities and inequalities of American society is one dimension worth reflecting upon.

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