Money dictates everything in politics & government today. If I were starting out now, I doubt I would have the same opportunity for public service Mario Cuomo gave me 30 years ago in a simpler, more direct, much more personal time when heart, and a passion for justice, were more important than wealth.
Fresh out of law school, I was buried in debt, had two jobs evaporate—one in the private sector, one at a public college– within 6 months of each other because of budget cuts and local politics. On the brink of despair with two advanced degrees, a nine-year old son and a mortgage to pay, I sat down late on a warm, July night after Mario Cuomo’s keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, and began to write:
“Dear Governor Cuomo:
Having just finished reading your new book and the complete text of your keynote speech, I felt compelled to write. Your words and deeds have served as a great inspiration during a particularly difficult period in my life…The reference in your speech to young families who can scarcely afford a mortgage is poignant and very real to me.
I believe that my personal testimony to unemployment and how it ravages those with ample professional skills as well as those without, can serve a useful purpose for the benefit of others. I would very much like to join your administration during this period of your reorganization and put my professional skills and personal experience to work on behalf of the “family” of New York State. Having lived that message, I believe I can articulate it well…
This has not been an easy letter to write. Yet, I believe that if the lessons I have learned from this extremely difficult period in my life can be used to benefit others, than good will have come out of adversity.”
I mailed the letter the following morning (decades before email), and had no expectation of any response. My correspondence with Mario Cuomo was a long-shot; a desperate, radical move made by someone with nothing to lose.
Less than one week later, I received a letter on State of New York Executive Chamber stationary, with one name listed as the inside address: “Mario M. Cuomo, Governor.” I rubbed my thumb over the raised seal of the State of New York at the top of the page, to prove to myself that the letter was authentic. My eyes darted down to the bottom of the letter, to a bold black signature by Mario Cuomo. Then, I read the three simple paragraphs which helped turn my professional life around:
“Dear Mr. Villano:
Your letter describing how unemployment “ravages those with professional skills as well as those without” is as eloquent as your resume and published work are impressive.
I am sending your application to my Appointments Office. I don’t know if there is any position appropriate to your skills right now. I do know that if we don’t find something quickly, a man with your talent and credentials will not be available long.
Thank you for the kind words about the “ Diaries” and my Keynote Speech. I am glad you established contact.
Mario M. Cuomo (signature)
I read and re-read one simple sentence: “I do know that if we don’t find something quickly, a man with your talent and credentials will not be available long.” That one line hooked me–especially coming from Mario Cuomo. I was 35 years old, out of work with a law degree, and my carefully calibrated professional life —so different from the always-chaotic experience of the struggling working-class Italian-American family in which I was raised—was collapsing.
Doubt dirtied my confidence in my “talent and credentials” and I was beginning to drift into darkness. I stared into the abyss that ate many I knew, some in my own family, and fought the pull to jump. Mario Cuomo’s words were a life-line to me, and I seized them. My correspondence with Cuomo, although I later discovered it was crafted by, Dick Starkey, a kind and generous journalist working with the Governor, captivated me. Here was a different kind of public person: he read, he wrote, he responded; he knew what it was to bleed.
I few months later, I was on “Mario’s Team,” and willing to sacrifice my life ,and my career, for this good man on more than one occasion. He read, he wrote, he listened very carefully to what you had to say. He was present in every moment. He thought and felt deeply. He knew what it was to bleed, and cared enough to do something about it in the days before money and influence replaced humanity.