Cuomo proposes adding national motto to state flag

Contributed A rendering of the proposed change, by adding "E Pluribus Unum" below "EXCELSIOR." 

ALBANY — For the past decade, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has found numerous opportunities to salt his speeches with the national motto — "e pluribus unum," a Latin phrase meaning "out of many, one."

For the initial string of mentions, Cuomo used the phrase in an uplifting, inspirational way, suggesting the sturdiness of "e pluribus unum" remained relevant at a time of significant national strife and division.

More recently, he has used it not just as a rallying theme in calls for unity but also to contrast his style of leadership with that of President Donald Trump, the man he labeled the "great divider-in-chief" during a 2018 church service.

Now, Cuomo says he intends to pass legislation that would stitch the words "E Pluribus Unum" onto New York's official state flag.

The phrase would join the only other word on the flag — "Excelsior," a Latin word meaning of high quality.

Cuomo made the proposal in his annual State of the State speech last week, prompting some lawmakers to question his priorities in a year when the state treasury faces a $6.1 billion budget deficit and many are debating criminal justice policy.

"I'd rather see the governor focus on getting a full repeal of the bad bail reform law, which is hurting public safety, and cruise around so he can see how bad the bridges and roads are in this state," said Assemblyman John Salka, R-Madison County.

Cuomo is likely to find more allies among his fellow Democrats.

Assistant Assembly Speaker Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, said the governor is sending the right message by trying to rally New Yorkers in the fight against a recent wave of bias attacks and threats.

"It would remind everyone that this is New York and we don't need anyone who brings bigotry and anti-Semitism to our state," Ortiz told CNHI.

Cuomo's repeated mentions of "e pluribus unum," along with the new flag measure, show how influenced he is by the soaring oratory of his late father, three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo, who died five years ago, said Harvey Schantz, a political science professor at the State University of Plattsburgh.

"New York needs the immigrants, now more than ever, and so does the rest of the nation," the elder Cuomo once said in a speech reprinted in a memoir by William O'Shaughnessy, a New York media personality who was close to him.

For Andrew Cuomo, the references to his family's Italian immigrant heritage have become a recurring theme, particularly when he discusses discrimination, Schantz said.

"You almost feel that the governor still feels the slights handed out to his parents and his grandparents," the professor said.

Since Trump, a native New Yorker, was sworn in as president three years ago, Cuomo has expanded his references to "e pluribus unum."

Noting words "so fundamental to America" are on a flag hanging behind the executive desk in the Oval Office, Andrew Cuomo, in a January 2018 speech, used "e pluribus unum" in a riff taking direct aim at Trump.

"To find the way forward, the president only needs to turn around," he said then.

Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, said Cuomo's proposal to update the state flag "appears to be driven by a desire to react to the president," adding that he sees Cuomo's trip to earthquake-damaged Puerto Rico this week in that vein as well.

While the words "e pluribus unum" have significant historical value and have served the nation well, Reeher questioned the need to put them on the New York flag now.

"If you want to permanently insert that into the flag and seal because of a reaction to a particular president, then I think we should probably take a step back," he said.

Reeher tossed out an alternative approach, suggesting the state could solicit ideas for a flag redesign.

"We could have a statewide process of coming together and vetting proposals, and have a system in place where the public can have input," Reeher said.

He added: "Maybe that would be an even stronger statement about participatory democracy, and the need for all of us to be together, and all of us to be involved."

Using "e pluribus unum" on a state seal is not a novel idea. Michigan has been doing so since it approved its flag in 1911, with the Latin words on a red ribbon.

Cuomo appears to be in uncharted waters with his push to update New York's flag, whose design has remained unchanged since 1881. The flag has figures symbolizing liberty and justice, with the justice figure stepping on a crown, suggesting the role New York colonists played during the American Revolution in the quest to expel British soldiers.

The center shield depicts a sloop and a ship on the Hudson River. Emblazoned below that image is the word "EXCELSIOR." Cuomo would tuck "E Pluribus Unum" below "EXCELSIOR."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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