Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Hugh Carey

It's hard today to remember how bad things were in New York in the mid-1970s. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller had run up enormous debts, and New York City was borrowing money to cover daily expenses. The state's savior came in the form of a liberal Democratic Congressman from Brooklyn who announced upon winning the 1974 gubernatorial race, that "the days of wine and roses are over."

Hugh Carey, who died Aug. 7 at 92, used every weapon in his arsenal, from loan restructuring to political strong-arming, to get the city and state back to financial health. Where he lacked the tools, he invented them, creating the Municipal Assistance Corporation to secure money for the city and take it back from the brink mere hours before bankruptcy.

Carey was a large character. He married a widow, with whom he had 13 children; after she died, he married a three-time divorcée. In the end, Carey considered the shuttering of the appalling Willowbrook State School, which housed thousands of mentally retarded children, to be his greatest accomplishment. But he was truly at his best when failure was unthinkable. "Hugh Carey on the petty issues can be very petty," his close strategist David Garth once said. "On the big stuff, he is terrific."

This text originally appeared in the Aug. 22, 2011 issue of TIME magazine.