Hugh Carey inherited a state in fiscal crisis when he became the governor of New York on Jan. 1, 1975. New York City was on the brink of insolvency, with $5 billion in debts and no way to pay its bills. Carey pulled the city and the state back from the financial abyss by reining in spending, shrinking bloated government payrolls, and refinancing debts. “The days of wine and roses are over,” he declared.
Born into an Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn, N.Y., Carey helped liberate the Nordhausen concentration camp in Germany as an infantryman in World War II, said The Wall Street Journal. He later cited that experience in explaining his opposition to death penalty bills, which he vetoed six times as governor. After the war he returned home, married a war widow, and raised 14 children, 11 of whom survive him.
Shortly before his wife was diagnosed with cancer, in 1973, she urged Carey, then in his seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives, to run for governor, said the Albany, N.Y., Times-Union. She died just weeks before Carey announced his candidacy, and “the entire family lived in a Winnebago for the summer while Carey toured the state” in a long-shot campaign that proved successful. The state’s voters soon realized they had “elected a man who thrived under fire,” said the New York Daily News.
Though Carey will be best remembered for his fiscal heroics, the liberal Democrat also reformed the state’s troubled mental-health services and instituted an era of “openness and clean government,” said The New York Times. But his second term in Albany was plagued by “erratic behavior” and a series of political gaffes. He said that one of New York’s U.S. Senate seats was “a Jewish seat,” and tried to downplay the contamination of a state office building by offering to drink a glass of toxic chemicals. But even as Carey veered from “witty storyteller” to “irascible loner,” criticism never fazed him. He told a reporter after leaving office that “the greatest gift in political life, in any life, is to view yourself objectively. So whom do I rely on? I rely on myself.”