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James T. Madore: Mom was empowered by Mario Cuomo

Mario M. Cuomo made my mother’s last months of life thrilling. A telephone call from the governor’s office in Albany led Mom to become a volunteer lobbyist for AARP in Washington. She joined others in pressing for national health care reform in 1994.

Mom’s final career began in the summer of that year when she showed up at the New York State Democratic Committee’s nominating convention in Buffalo. Possessed of self-confidence, she walked into a reception and somehow managed to get a few minutes with Cuomo after he had accepted the party’s nomination to run for a fourth term.

Later, Mom told me she had wanted to talk with Cuomo about health care reform. She said he listened intently as she told him how she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and insurance premiums were consuming most of her retirement income. She told him there were many others in similar situations. She said she wanted to work for changes that would help future generations.

Cuomo, according to Mom, said the issue was very important but would be decided in Washington, not Albany. He told her the fight would be difficult.

Cuomo asked if Mom was a member of AARP. She said she received the group’s monthly magazine and was covered by its supplemental health insurance but had no other connections. He then asked for her name and telephone number. He promised to have an aide call her with information on AARP’s lobbying efforts.

Cuomo was true to his word and more. The next day an AARP representative telephoned Mom and wondered if she would be interested in joining AARP’s lobbying team. She was elated.

For the next six months, Mom took an airplane to Washington about every three weeks to tell her story of illness and high insurance premiums to members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. She met leaders in small groups and one on one. Some were supportive and others were not. But she never seemed to get discouraged. “I’ll go back and speak with them again. Maybe they will change their mind,” she told me one day. “I have to keep trying.”

The experience was one of the highlights of her life. Instead of thinking about her impending death, she was energized by learning about health care policy, meeting lawmakers and seeing how the Congress works.

None of it would have happened if Cuomo hadn’t taken the time to listen to the plea of a 70-year-old Buffalonian. Her family is grateful to the late governor.

Alice Danes Madore died 20 years ago last month.

In 1994, Mom, a lifelong Democrat, was shocked by Cuomo’s defeat by Republican George E. Pataki. On election night, she was undergoing a medical procedure and insisted I put the telephone receiver up to the television so she could listen to Cuomo’s concession speech. She was very sad.

Mom didn’t agree with all of Cuomo’s policies but admired his intelligence and oratory. She once said: “He’s smart. He moves people when he speaks.”

Those traits are what all citizens, regardless of the political party they favor, hope to see in their leaders.

Some historians say you can tell the true character of a leader in how they treat ordinary citizens, not only the great and good.

Cuomo transformed Mom’s life with a conversation that lasted less than 10 minutes. He demonstrated character. He showed greatness.