With all the current talk about defaulting, deficit reductions and the financial crisis, the state and the nation could have used a Hugh Carey.
Carey, a two-term Democratic governor of New York from 1975 to 1981, most remembered for rescuing New York City from bankruptcy, died Aug. 7 at his home on Shelter Island, N.Y. He was 92. No cause of death was reported, but last year he underwent heart surgery.
That same heart was steadfast and strong when it came to dealing with the state’s financial situation, which was abysmally bad when he took control.
Carey, a seven-term House representative from Brooklyn, made it clear that the free spending that sent the state’s economy reeling into a death spiral had to end. “The days of wine and roses are over,” he declared in his first address to the state Legislature.
Practically every state agency, school district and municipality was on the verge of total financial collapse, to say nothing of the $5 billion debt in New York City with no recourse to borrowing to get out of the hole.
Navigating through the fiscal quagmire required all the managerial skills Carey could muster, and he miraculously overcame the crisis by reducing government services, increasing taxes and lowering state and city budgets.
During his appearance on NY1, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch praised Carey, the father of 14 children, insisting that “he saved the city and the state in 1975.” Koch said he was very good leader who knew how to put together a winning team.
New Yorkers will never forget 1975 when Carey and Mayor Abe Beame went to Washington, D.C., to see President Gerald Ford, seeking a $1 billion loan. Ford rejected their plea. They needed the money to offset the debt accumulated by Nelson Rockefeller, the previous governor.
Subsequently, things got worse in the city, with piles of garbage on the streets, fires raging out of control and 20,000 laid-off workers. The situation was so desperate that Carey directed the Emergency Financial Control Board to command a good portion of the city’s budget from the mayor’s office.
That measure was followed by higher transit fares, an increase in taxes and a delay in paying the city’s debt. Even the city-run colleges, which at that time offered free tuition, were placed under state control.
With each day, the dire circumstances worsened, but Ford was unmoved.
After Ford announced that he “was prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a federal bailout of New York City to prevent a default,” the New York Daily News summarized that resolve with the headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
An email from Kings County District Attorney Charles J.
Hynes poignantly recalled Carey’s legacy. “I sadly record the passing of one of this state’s greatest governors,” he began. “In January of 1975, I was given the honor of serving the people of New York State as the first nursing home prosecutor by the joint appointment of Governor Hugh L.
Carey and the legendary Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz. My appointment was recommended by my old and dear friend Mario M. Cuomo, then secretary of state to Governor Carey, who would himself take Governor Carey’s place in 1983 as one of New York’s great governors.
“Despite a looming fiscal crisis, Governor Carey never wavered in his support for my office and its mission to prosecute a large number of nursing home operators throughout the state who were systemically stealing Medicaid funds and cruelly mistreating vulnerable nursing home patients with substandard care.
“As a result of Governor Carey’s support,” Hynes added, “my office became the role model for the Office of the Medicaid Fraud Prosecutor, supported substantially by federal resources in 1977. As a direct result, today there are 47 Medicaid Fraud Offices in as many states protecting sick, elderly residents of thousands of nursing homes throughout the country and guarding against unchecked Medicaid theft. None of this could have happened without the vision of Hugh L. Carey.
“Citizens everywhere in this nation have lost an extraordinary servant of the public. I thank God I had the honor of working for Hugh Carey.”