Institute Forum

Summary: Hugh Carey Remembered as Leader, Fiscal Savior, Humanitarian October 3, 2011

Hugh Carey Remembered as Leader, Fiscal Savior, Humanitarian

A forum convened at the Rockefeller Institute of Government on October 3 honored former Governor Hugh L. Carey for the courageous decisions he took during the 1970s fiscal crisis that threatened the solvency of New York City and the state — and remembered him also as a great humanitarian who bridged political differences to improve New Yorkers’ lives.

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Audio (entire event)

Entire event
Michael Carey
Peter Goldmark
Panel: Benjamin, Introne, McMahon
Presentation of book award
Nancy Carey Cassidy

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Carey, who died August 7, served two terms as New York State’s chief executive from 1975 through 1982, entering the office during the most profound fiscal crisis to hit the state in modern times. His leadership is credited with saving New York City and New York State from fiscal catastrophe. His legacy also includes notable achievements in areas including services for the mentally disabled, the environment, mass transit, judicial reform and rejuvenation of the state’s economy.

Speakers at the forum recalled this time in the Governor’s life and the state’s history with admiration for Carey’s leadership. As outlined by Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at the State University at New Paltz and co-author of a 1985 book about the Carey administration, the challenges before Carey were substantial and numerous. They included a state budget gap of $700 million; insolvent state agencies; the illiquidity of New York City, Yonkers and Buffalo; a deficit and decline in mass transit; serious problems in education; double-digit unemployment; and the highest taxes in the nation.

“Hugh Carey had greatness thrust upon him, you might say. He was put in a … life-or-death circumstance for New York. But he was not afraid,” Benjamin said. “He had the capacity to lead in the most critical moment, and I’d say embraced the opportunity to lead.”

Peter Goldmark, the first budget director under Carey, regaled the audience with tales from the administration that combined personal recollections and humor with insights applicable to the precarious fiscal situation facing today’s government leaders. Goldmark said the governor shared “the trademark of all great political leaders: the worse the pressure gets, the stronger they get.” Goldmark spoke of Carey’s intelligence in understanding state and local government budgets as being part of “one nervous system” that could not be considered independently. And he told of the governor’s willingness to take big risks he believed in. One of those came when Carey asked the Legislature to bail out New York City with three advances of $75 million each — at a time the state was struggling to balance its own budget and many Upstate lawmakers and voters opposed special assistance for the city.

“It was a supreme and single act of the greatest courage, the loneliest act. I think it was more dangerous than anybody understood at the time,” Goldmark said. “Because if it hadn’t worked out, that meant we were all going down very, very far.”

E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State, said that on budget and tax issues, the governor defied expectations that people had when he took office. Incumbent Republican Governor Malcolm Wilson ran against Carey, a Democrat, characterizing him as a big-spending liberal. In fact, McMahon said, the Carey administration enacted huge tax cuts and “held down the level of spending to a greater extent than any governor in New York’s history.”

“A lot of remarkable things happened, not all of which were predictable at the outset of his tenure,” McMahon said.

Yet Carey was not exclusively — or even primarily — interested in New York’s finances, several speakers recalled.

“At his core, he was about people and he was about human services,” said James Introne, commissioner of the Office of Mental Retardation and Development Disabilities in the Carey administration.

“Most of government is about human services and education, social services and health care. But it’s rare to find leaders in government who viscerally connect with those issues. … Hugh Carey was one of those really rare individuals,” said Introne, who currently serves as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s director of health-care redesign.

Several speakers remarked on the Willowbrook Consent Decree, which led to the placement of many developmentally disabled New Yorkers in communities and out of institutions where they had been warehoused. Goldmark described his former boss’s concern for the vulnerable in the way he directed Medicaid cuts that gave institutions incentives to shrink without reducing specific services.

Seymour Lachman, author of a book about Carey titled The Man Who Saved New York, said that Carey’s opposition to the death penalty demonstrated the governor’s “guts, courage, wisdom and spirituality.” Carey’s then-unpopular stance arose from his deep Catholic faith, Lachman said, and a reverence for life borne of witnessing death in World War II.

At the event, Lachman received the New York State Archives Partnership Trust’s First Annual Empire State History Book Award, presented by New York State Archivist Christine Ward.

In addition to looking backward, the speakers also looked forward in remarking on Carey’s legacy.

“I’ve long thought that Hugh Carey has and will have the most enduring and positive legacy of any governor of the late 20th century in New York,” McMahon said. “And I think we’re going to continue to realize that, and his reputation is going to continue to grow and to be strengthened in years ahead.”

At a time when many states face extreme fiscal challenges and in some cases what Goldmark called “the functional equivalent of bankruptcy,” the former budget director said that the financial control board put in place to oversee New York City’s finances in the 1970s may be the administration’s most lasting legacy.

“We are going to need some more control boards before this decade is over, in the public sector, in this state and in this country,” he said.

Carey’s reputation as New York’s fiscal savior resonates worldwide as countries around the globe grapple with fiscal crises, said Lachman, who noted that after the governor’s death, the London Daily Telegraph was among papers to run a lengthy obituary.

Carey’s 11 living children attended the forum, having come from a Catholic memorial Mass in Albany earlier that day. Michael Carey, principal of The Carey Group LLC, opened the forum and recalled that the clan called his father “Huge,” in a tribute to his larger-than-life personality. Daughter Nancy Carey Cassidy, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Picotte Cos., closed the event, challenging those in attendance to entice talented young people to enter government service and strive to be the kind of leader her father was.

That could be a tall order, one description of the governor suggests.

“You worked for him because you loved him, just because of what he stood for, because he was inspirational, and he was so talented,” Introne said, referring to the former governor as “the greatest leader I think that I’ve ever encountered.”


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.