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Former New York Governor Hugh Carey Dies At 92

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Former New York Governor Hugh Carey (credit: George De Sota/Newsmakers)

Former New York Governor Hugh Carey (credit: George De Sota/Newsmakers)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Former New York Gov. Hugh Carey, who led the rescue effort that brought New York City back from the brink of bankruptcy during its 1975 fiscal crisis, died Sunday. He was 92.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Carey’s passing, calling him a “true American success story.”

“Declaring that the days of wine and roses were over, Governor Carey looked to statesmanship and compromise, rather than partisanship or parochialism, to get the state’s fiscal house in order,” Cuomo said in a statement. “He called for shared sacrifice and asked all New Yorkers to come together. New Yorkers across the state heard the governor’s call to action, followed his lead, and the ship was righted.”

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Carey, a Democrat, served two terms as governor from 1975 to 1982 after seven terms as a congressman from Brooklyn. Hailed for his crisis management during the city’s brush with insolvency, Carey mustered the backing needed to reorganize its shaky finances and restore confidence in both the city and state.

He also campaigned successfully for merit selection of top state judges, and the well-known “I Love New York” campaign started during his years in office.

His accomplishments were sometimes overshadowed by gaffes, however, such as an offer to drink a glass of toxic PCBs to downplay contamination, or an attempt to use the state to block construction next to his summer home.

Carey took office in January 1975, and the first year was his most challenging and finest.

New York City’s finances were in such a mess in early 1975 that banks refused to lend it more money. Default loomed, but Carey enlisted labor leaders, politicians and fiscal experts and came up with a rescue plan that included strict oversight of all spending by the nation’s largest city.

Shuttling among Albany, New York City and Washington, he then won federal loan guarantees from the reluctant Republican administration of President Gerald Ford that secured the plan.

Ford’s reluctance made front-page news, immortalized in the New York Daily News headline: “Ford To City: Drop Dead.” While Ford did not explicitly mouth those words, they were implied in a speech he made initially denying the city federal assistance.

As governor, Carey pushed for job programs, increases in welfare and unemployment benefits, and began a major tax cut program in 1977.

A staunch Roman Catholic, Carey personally opposed abortion but nonetheless led the fight for Medicaid funding so poor women wouldn’t be denied access to abortions. Years later, he voiced regret over that role.

He opposed capital punishment and six times vetoed bills restoring the death penalty.

“I would like to be remembered as somebody who cared a great deal about people,” Carey said.

But he was also regarded as something of a loner, who had difficulty maintaining relationships with subordinates and legislators.

In 1981, an electrical transformer fire contaminated the 18-story Binghamton State Office Building with soot-laden with toxic PCBs and dioxin. Carey sought to allay public fears. Describing the situation as “overblown,” he declared, “I offer here and now to walk into Binghamton, to any part of that building and swallow an entire glass of PCBs.”

The remark provoked a storm of derision and Carey later apologized. The accident is considered the country’s first indoor environmental disaster; the building remained closed for more than 13 years and the cleanup cost more than the original structure.

His second term bogged down in disputes with the Legislature and seemed lackluster.

“What am I supposed to do, save New York City twice?” Carey once commented. He declined to seek a third term. He became a partner in a Park Avenue law firm, then joined W.R. Grace & Co. as a Washington lobbyist.

Before he became governor, Carey spent 14 years in Congress representing his Brooklyn district. Now-Sen. Charles Schumer took up his seat when Carey left.

In 2008, Carey endorsed Barack Obama over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Either choice would be a measurable improvement over where we are,” Carey said, “but I have a preference based on the measures I make: a basic capacity to deal with crisis and to think globally for our security, the fact that he (Obama) has talked of coalition and reaching across the aisle, and the way he has conducted his campaign.”

Hugh Leo Carey was born in Brooklyn in 1919. After military service in World War II he went to law school and then joined the family business; his father was a petroleum distributor. In his first run for Congress, in 1960, he wrested a seat from a four-term Republican incumbent.

He served on the Ways and Means and the Education and Labor committees, and in 1969 made an unsuccessful run for the New York City Council presidency.

Carey and his first wife, Helen, had 14 children. She died in 1974. His 1981 marriage to Chicago millionaire Evangeline Gouletas ended in divorce.

Carey, who also maintained a residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was a senior partner at Harris Beach law firm.

Asked in a 2007 New York Times interview what he would like to be remembered for, Carey replied: “as a man who loved the people of New York as much as he loved his own family.”

What do you remember about Gov. Hugh Carey? Sound off in our comments section below…

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