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Death of a Liberal Icon

January 11, 2015

Mario Cuomo will be remembered as the liberal lion of the ‘80s and ‘90s. His speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, “A Tale of Two Cities,” cemented that legacy. He fought for the common man. Interestingly, he came to prominence in New York fighting for people in Queens and in his losing race to Ed Koch for mayor in 1977 was seen by many as the more conservative candidate. I first met Cuomo and his then teenage son Andrew during that campaign. In my only mention on the front page, above-the-fold in the New York Times, a Sept. 17, 1977 column by Fred Ferretti said, “It was learned that Ms. Abzug’s campaign staff had moved virtually en masse to the Cuomo headquarters on Times Square. Those who moved included Peter Rosenstein, Mrs. Abzug’s Deputy Campaign Manager, now Cuomo’s director of field operations … and other members of the Abzug inner circle Maggie Peyton, Harold Holzer and Kenneth Sunshine.” That happened immediately after Bella lost her primary race for mayor and the run-off was between Cuomo and Koch. It happened before Bella officially endorsed Cuomo and she wasn’t happy.

Then came the dance when she did endorse over who would get to the press conference first, Bella or Mario. The endorsement nearly fell apart over that. Those of us moving to the Cuomo team were to work in two losing elections in quick succession. That was the last time my name ever got mentioned above that of my good friend Harold Holzer, the distinguished Lincoln scholar, who was to become a confidant of Cuomo, or Kenneth Sunshine who was to form a world-renowned public relations firm and is still a confidant of politicians, including current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cuomo ran and lost in 1974 for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Howard Samuels. When he lost the mayor’s race, his mother Immaculata Cuomo was widely reported as saying “Mario don’t you ever win nothin?” But he did go on to win and served three terms as governor of New York and twice was the leading Democrat being asked to run for president. Each time he decided at the last minute not to run, which earned him the title “Hamlet on the Hudson.” Cuomo is known for the saying “Politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose” — something New York’s current mayor is now learning.

Two things remembered from that 1977 campaign are that Cuomo’s stand against the death penalty hurt him and those placards that appeared in the conservative areas of the city saying: “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” in reference to rumors about Koch’s sexuality. Cuomo denied responsibility for them but it was always apparent someone associated with the campaign was responsible. Cuomo himself moved beyond that and with changing circumstances it was his stand against the death penalty that helped him beat Koch for governor in 1982. His son Andrew is now the governor and it was with his strong support that marriage equality became law in New York State. In politics, nothing stays the same and people change.

It would be very difficult today in most districts across the nation for a politician to stand on the progressive platform that Mario Cuomo enunciated and win. I was reminded in a Facebook post from my friend Joel Lawson of a great quote from a speech Cuomo gave in 1984 at the University of Notre Dame titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” in which he said, “I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant, or non-believer, or as anything else you choose. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us. This freedom is the fundamental strength of our unique experiment in government. The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.”

It seems the era in which one could say those things and win is past. Today we have politicians who campaign on having their religious beliefs enshrined in law and who quote the Bible when trying to stop marriage equality. There is a culture of conveniently forgetting how our Founding Fathers fought to ensure the separation of church and state. I would like to think that sooner rather than later our nation will one day advance to a state in which a Mario Cuomo could be elected president.

First printed in the Washington Blade

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'The Tempest' is a Hit

December 14, 2014

Sofia Jean Gomez as Ariel (Photo by: Shakespeare Theatre Company) Sofia Jean Gomez as Ariel

The Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) has another hit on its hands. The Tempest, directed superbly by Ethan McSweeny, makes for a great evening in the theater. McSweeny once again shows us how talented he is.

The plot is fairly simple. The magician Prospero, after twelve years of being marooned on a magical island with his daughter Miranda, tells her was once the Duke of Milan. The play revolves around how he gets his revenge against those he says usurped his power.

Aside from the great acting, and there is great acting, what makes this a particularly fun evening in the theatre are the great costumes, scenic and lighting design. Lee Savage, the scenic designer has turned the stage into a big sandbox for the island. The images he uses for the ship tossing in the storm are great. Then there are Jennifer Moeller’s creative costumes and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting which manages to keep the audience enthralled and on the edge of their seats. There are a number of huge puppets in the play and when they make their entrance the audience oohs and aahs appreciatively which is clearly what their designer James Ortiz wanted us to do. They are truly memorable.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero (Photo by: Shakespeare Theatre Company) Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero

Then there is Ariel played by Sofia Jean Gomez who flies around the stage in a way that can only be reminiscent of Peter Pan. And how she does it, directed by Stu Cox, and her good acting keep the attention on her whenever she is on-stage or should I say flying above the stage.

Geraint Wyn Davies, who has been at the STC before as Don Armando, Richard III and Cyrano, is a great Prospero in this production of the Tempest. He is a commanding presence on the stage. Rachel Mewbron who plays his daughter Miranda also does a good job.

Dave Quay who plays Stephano (Photo by: Shakespeare Theatre Company) Dave Quay who plays Stephano

Then there is Clifton Duncan who makes a good Caliban, easy on the eyes as well, and the scenes he shares with Triculo played to perfection by Liam Craig and Stephano played by the extremely talented Dave Quay are some of the best in the production. D. C. audiences hopefully will get to see Quay again. He hails from Atlanta and I had the good fortune to meet his grandparents after the show. They travel around to watch him perform and his grandmother said to me, “We are so proud of him and enjoy watching him and can’t wait till he is in a play in Paris”.

The rest of the cast is very good and what can you say that hasn’t already been said about the inimitable Ted Van Griethuysen who is great as Gonzalo. If you have never seen the Tempest this is a great introduction to the play and if you have you will find this one of the best productions of it you will have ever seen. It is at the STC Harman Hall until January 11th and tickets could make a great Holiday gift for someone you care about.


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Marion Barry’s Casket at the Wilson Building

December 4, 2014

Christopher Barry,  Mayor Vincent Gray, Cora Barry, Phil Mendelson (Photo by: Courtesy of the Executive Office of the Mayor) Christopher Barry, Mayor Vincent Gray, Cora Barry, Phil Mendelson

On Thursday morning Marion Barry’s casket was brought to the John A. Wilson building to honor his service to the District and allow people to pay their respects to a man who did much for the people here.  I took the opportunity to stop and pay my respects and found it very moving. The city’s former Mayors and the Council were there to honor him.  

The Marion Barry I knew was bigger than life; a civil rights icon and in many ways a great Mayor of the District of Columbia. He supported the LGBT community most of his life until it came to the final vote on marriage-equality when he spoke out in ways both offensive and unfathomable. He shocked a community he once credited with helping him win his first race for Mayor in 1978. Despite that, he will be remembered for his early success in amending the city’s Human Rights Act ensuring there would be no referendum on marriage-equality in the District. His amendment meant that the majority could never vote to curtail the rights of a minority. Glenn Baker who produced a documentary for WETA on DC in the 80s said of Barry "Whites helped elect him; he embraced the gay community and was very wise about developing that constituency. He had gay members on his staff and in the city government, and as a result, D.C. became known as a gay-friendly city, and grew to be one of the most vibrant gay communities in the country."

Bringing the casket up the Wilson Building steps (Photo by: Courtesy of the Executive Office of the Mayor) Bringing the casket up the Wilson Building steps

History will remember Barry for all he did to make life better for so many. Upon learning of his death, President Obama said, "Marion was born a sharecropper's son, came of age during the Civil Rights movement, and became a fixture in D.C. politics for decades. As a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Marion helped advanced the cause of civil rights for all. During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand opportunity and begin to make real the promise of home rule."

My introduction to Barry came just prior to the 1978 Mayoral election. He asked for my vote but I hadn’t yet switched my registration from New York. Like many who came to work for an administration we thought after a few years we would return home. Thirty-six years later I am proud to say D.C. is my home.

Marion appointed me to the first D.C. Commission on which I proudly served. Marion Barry is given credit for turning the District of Columbia from a small sleepy southern town into a real city. When elected in 1978 the city still had visible and invisible vestiges of the 1968 riots. Barry began building a vibrant downtown and was responsible for the Reeves Center that began the rebirth of the ‘U’ street corridor.

Christopher Barry, Cora Barry (Photo by: Courtesy of the Executive Office of the Mayor) Christopher Barry, Cora Barry

Barry was reelected in 1982 and 1986 without much competition. Unfortunately his third term brought on talk of corruption, womanizing, drinking and drug use. The U.S. Attorney tried every way to connect Barry to corruption but couldn’t. Then in what many believed to be an outrageous perversion of power set up the sting where Barry was caught smoking crack cocaine. After all that Barry was convicted of only a misdemeanor charge but received a six month a jail term.

After getting out of jail Marion ran for and won the Ward 8 council seat. Then to the surprise of many he won his fourth term as Mayor in 1994 with nearly 56% of the vote. Barry was magnanimous to those like me who didn’t support him in that race and willingly worked with us during that last term.

Honor guard (Photo by: Courtesy of the Executive Office of the Mayor) Honor guard

While the city’s financial picture continued to disintegrate and Congress installed a Financial Control Board Barry worked with Abe Pollin to build the Verizon Center. Together with the Shakespeare Theatre and its Artistic Director Michael Kahn who led the way by moving to the Lansburgh Theatre in 1992, these two projects are responsible for the rebirth of the 7th street corridor and a vibrant downtown entertainment district.

Barry ended his fourth term as Mayor at noon on January 1st 1999. After a few years of staying out of politics in 2004 he ran again and took back the Ward 8 council seat. It was a seat he held until his death. Marion Barry and the District of Columbia will forever be linked in history. 

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