Rep Donna Cuomo RNorth Andover Gives Crime Victims a Voice

One of the first things you notice upon entering the offices of Joey Fournier Services is a wall of photographs to the right. They are the type parents proudly display on their office desks or their mantelpieces.

They form a random, disparate family album: first prom, first high school ball game, first day at school. Some of the children are grinning ear-to-ear. A couple poses stiff and nervous, a fake sky perched on their shoulders. One next to another, they are a community of faces, protected by a single pane of glass and one frame. Their names, their stories, are recited often, and by memory.

A little black girl, blue bows atop her braids, winks at the camera: Tiffany Moore, age 12, pierced by a stray bullet in a gang dispute. A soft blonde, locket hanging round her slim neck: Paula Danforth, raped and murdered by a co-worker. A 17-year-old, immobile in his starched oxford, trying to force a look of ease: Mark Belmore, a Northeastern University student who was stabbed to death walking home from his girlfriend’s house.

There are many more. Kenny Claudio, a 5-year-old with a snaggle-toothed smile. A young woman with piercing blue eyes who stands erect in her Marine Corps whites. A young African-American football player, posing in uniform with one knee resting on the grass….

The largest photograph in the room is of Joey–his countenance slightly shaggy, his smile that of someone who has the rest of his life to chase dreams and pretty girls.

The curator of this sad collage is Donna Fournier Cuomo, an outspoken advocate of the political interests and rights of crime victims. She is also the Republican state representative from the 14th Essex district, in traditionally Democratic northeast Massachusetts. Joey Fournier is, was, her little brother.

Looking over the montage, Cuomo explains her reasons for pushing for change, and for seeking public office. “There’s a real frustration at the system and you feel the only way you can make a difference is to be a part of it from the inside.”

With her late brother in mind, Cuomo set out several years ago to campaign for a tougher criminal justice system in Massachusetts. As an activist she lobbied to repeal the state’s furlough program for first-degree murderers; and she pushed successfully to have parole records made available to the families of victims. As a legislator she has become a champion of get-tough sentencing measures and efforts to secure for victims the right to have a say in the outcome of the entire justice process–from sentencing to parole.

One of Cuomo’s greatest assets, however, may be her ability to command the attention of the reporters and other victims who know her because of Joey. At the intersection of the personal and the political–where public opinion may matter more than statistics–Cuomo’s experiences and those of others like her have become catalysts for changing public policy.

The day everything changed

The seeds of Cuomo’s political awakening were planted on October 26, 1974. The central character is not Joey, nor is it Donna, herself. It’s William R. Horton.

Joey Fournier, 17, was working alone at the Marston Street Mobil station in Lawrence. Three men drove up to the gas station and two entered, brandishing knives and demanding money. Joey gave them $276.37. A short time later, one of Joey’s friends stopped by the station to say hello and found Joey dead, stuffed haphazardly in a trash barrel. He had been stabbed 19 times. Three men confessed to the robbery but not the murder. Police believed that of the three men it was Horton–who had been arrested previously for assault with intent to murder in South Carolina–who was the killer. In 1975, all three were convicted of armed robbery and first-degree murder.

Donna Fournier Cuomo went on with her life. Married to Robert Cuomo, an economist, and living in the affluent community of North Andover, she worked as a school teacher and as a real estate relocation agent while raising her children, Mark and Rachel.

Twelve years after the murder, on June 6, 1986, Horton was released from the Northeastern Correctional Center in Concord for his tenth unguarded 48-hour furlough. Signed into law by Gov. Francis W. Sargent in 1972, the furlough program was supposed to help ease hardened criminals back into society and reward them for good behavior.

Horton, of course, never came back to Massachusetts. He fled to Maryland, where he terrorized a young couple, holding them hostage at gunpoint and raping the wife. The couple managed to escape and Horton was captured and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years in a Maryland prison.

Faced with growing public outrage after Horton’s escape, Gov. Michael Dukakis tightened eligibility for the program, but declined to do away with it altogether. Instead of scrapping the program, his advisors defended it, assailing the Horton case as an aberration. Their seeming indifference only fueled the anger of victim rights’ activists. Cuomo, for one, felt betrayed.

“Until we had discovered Horton had escaped on furlough we thought the system had worked for us,” she says.

A handful of activists, including Cuomo, launched a petition drive to repeal the furlough program. They led rallies on the State House steps. Along with a core of a dozen volunteers, they canvassed shopping malls, parades, and VFW halls in search of the 50,000 signatures required to place a question on the ballot.

But the legislature, bowing to growing public pressure, ended the program before activists could force the question at the ballot box. Dukakis reluctantly signed the repeal, refusing to disclose whether he supported it.

“Willie” Horton was born into national notoriety soon after.

As Cuomo’s profile rose as a result of the petition drive, some who had worked most closely with her started to grumble that she seemed to prefer the klieg lights to the grueling drudge work of activism. They were offended by the characterization, repeated in news story after news story, that Cuomo had singlehandedly initiated the effort.

Maureen Donovan, one of the founders of the petition drive, says Cuomo’s role was limited mostly to public events and media interviews, a factor that became a source of friction between Cuomo and other activists.

“She would go where the television [cameras] went and then she was gone,” says Donovan, now a member of the Methuen City Council. “There were people who worked a lot harder than her.”

But Cuomo disputes the assessment, which she says does not take into account her efforts to transform the loose group of activists into a professional campaign. “I am the one who organized a rally at the State House. I am the one who said we have to have a press conference,” a flustered Cuomo responds. “It would never have happened without those things. We would never have gotten those signatures.”

In 1988, Cuomo-the-activist began her foray into campaign politics. She took her story through Illinois, New York, Texas and California–three states rich in electoral college votes–for the presidential bid of George Bush. Cuomo and Cliff Barnes, the Maryland man terrorized by Horton, cut radio ads for Bush. When Bush trounced Dukakis in November, Cuomo and Barnes were rewarded with invitations to the Bush inauguration.

Taking action, taking office

One year later, Cuomo founded Joey Fournier Services, a victims’ advocacy and violence prevention group. Then-Sen. Paul Cellucci was by her side for the kickoff. An energetic woman fond of bright colors and even brighter lipstick, Cuomo had by now become an astute player–she knew how to organize an army of volunteers, pitch stories to reporters, and work a political reception. Joey Fournier Services had a twin agenda: to increase the clout of victims while trying to reduce their future ranks. Cuomo began to raise grant money for Second Step, a violence prevention and anger management program for children. In 1991, she brought the program to the chaotic Lawrence school system, training teachers in how to instruct kids in impulse management and goal setting.

Angered by her experience testifying before lawmakers and then watching them “yes us to death,” only to bottle up victim rights legislation in committee, Cuomo began to consider embarking upon a political career. Fellow sojourners in the victim rights movement and longtime neighbors urged her on. When Rep. Joseph Hermann, a conservative Democrat, passed away in 1993, Cuomo saw an opportunity. The 14th Essex District House seat, which included North Andover, Middleton, and the southern section of Lawrence, was open. In June 1993, former Democrat Donna Cuomo announced she would run.

Local Republican Party activists closed ranks around Cuomo, handing her the GOP nomination. She was following in the footsteps of two recent candidates touched by personal tragedy who had tried (and failed) to win seats in the legislature: 1992 Senate candidate Paula Childs, whose husband was killed by a drunk driver, and 1990 Senate candidate Andrew Pryor, whose daughter Sarah disappeared in 1985.

Cuomo’s battle against local Democratic party activist and former North Andover School Board member Mark DiSalvo was a gamble for Republicans. The district favored Democrats 2-1 in voter registration, yet independents outnumbered both parties. Cuomo cited economics and education as the twin themes of her campaign, arguing that the area’s high crime rate could be traced in part to a “lack of jobs, poverty and poor education.”

On criminal justice issues, Cuomo was unassailable–and blunt:

“Everybody knows, the criminals more than anyone, that the criminal justice system in Massachusetts is a joke. And when you have no justice it shows a lack of compassion for the victims and a lack of concern for the safety of the public.”

And at every opportunity, Cuomo-the-candidate attempted to sell a somewhat contradictory persona: She was the nonpolitician with “the clout” to convince her Republican friends, Gov. William Weld and Lt. Gov. Cellucci, to back her legislative agenda. “Can you trust the person on Beacon Hill?” Cuomo rhetorically asked in a newspaper interview. “So often the person you elect does not answer to the community, but to other interested groups.”

Both candidates brought in big-ticket fund-raisers: Cuomo had Weld, Cellucci, and Treasury Secretary Joe Malone; DiSalvo had former U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas and Rep. Joe Kennedy. Cuomo, who bragged of knocking on more than 4,000 doors in the district, won the special election with 56 percent of the vote, serving the remainder of Hermann’s term. In 1994, she won re-election to the seat with little fanfare and only minor opposition from Democrats, who neglected to field an opponent two years later.

“If I had to say why people would support me or vote for me,” says Cuomo, “it is because they say, ‘Here’s somebody like us.’ ”

Prisoners on work-release

A slender woman with dark hair and a tendency to reach in close when she makes a point, Cuomo does not seem to possess the smooth ways of a politician. She might remind you of the slightly dizzy but surprisingly forceful aunt who always made sure you had a couple of extra bucks in your Christmas stocking as a reward for a good report card. The daughter of an accountant of French Canadian descent, Cuomo paid her way through college by peddling shoes. She’s a blue-collar-sounding everywoman who talks loud in public and can’t quite remember the margin by which she won her first election to public office.

Donna Fournier Cuomo gently thrusts her hands forward and rolls her large grey eyes for emphasis: “It would be wonderful if we had a source of funding they couldn’t touch.”

Three Essex County Corrections officials nod their heads. They’ve invited Cuomo to “the Farm,” a minimum security prison where one-third of the 250 prisoners participate in a work-release program. In this office–filled with golf and prison memorabilia, like a ceramic pig in a corrections uniform–Cuomo is trying to help them devise a pilot program that would require inmates who work to hand some of their earnings over to the victims of their crimes. But previous efforts by Cuomo to convince the state to pay for a coordinator for the program have failed.

Could the department come up with a way to fund part of the salary? What about making uniforms or starting a print shop and using some of the profits?

“I couldn’t believe I spent $34 for my daughter’s jeans. She’s starting school next week,” Cuomo interjects. “I couldn’t believe it.” The prison officials nod at Cuomo, who apologizes for wandering “all over the place.” They don’t really seem to mind.

The meeting comes to an end with plans for a breakfast conference involving more area legislators. Cuomo steps into her roomy white Lincoln Town Car and promptly loses her way through the streets of Lawrence, admonishing herself the entire time.

A growing movement

Cuomo’s rise to political influence is in step with an expansion in the size and power of victim rights groups across the nation. The number of local groups has grown from 200 in 1980 to more than 8,000, according to the nonprofit National Organization For Victim Assistance (NOVA). Perhaps as a result, state governments and legislatures are paying more attention to the concerns of victims. While 27 states had victim compensation programs in 1980, programs are now in place in every state and the District of Columbia. Every state now allows or requires prosecutors and judges to officially take into consideration the impact of a crime on the victim when determining the offender’s sentence. In addition, 21 states have amended their constitution to give victims a more substantial role in criminal justice proceedings. Voters will decide whether to approve similar measures in eight states this November.

“What we are doing, I think, at some level is overcoming a very strong impulse in human nature, which is to take the victimized within a society and put them at arms’ length,” says John Stein, NOVA’s executive director. Notably, this movement has united otherwise unlikely constituencies, as left-leaning feminists concerned about domestic violence have joined forces with conservative death penalty supporters who abhor parole.

In 1995, the Massachusetts legislature passed a measure broadening the 1983 Victim Bill of Rights law. The new provisions gave victims the right to confer with prosecutors before they dismiss a case or negotiate a guilty plea, and before sentencing recommendations are made. Under the new law, prosecutors must periodically update victims on the status of significant developments in their case. The measure also allows victims and family members, in most instances, to be present at all court proceedings related to the case.

In Washington, activists have won the support of a handful of prominent lawmakers as they push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would spell out victim rights. Under the amendment, victims would be given the opportunity to testify at court proceedings over bail, plea bargains and sentencing. Authorities would also be required to notify victims if a defendant escapes from custody, a provision already required in many states. Both presidential candidates have said they back the idea of amending the Constitution. President Clinton chose to make his position public on national television when he accepted his party’s nomination in Chicago.

For crime victims, the widespread attention to their concerns is a sharp departure from the days when they were treated by law enforcement officials and the courts as a nuisance. Politics, says Kelly Rudiger, executive director of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, one of the oldest groups in the nation, plays no small part.

“Candidates know that if you have an endorsement from a crime victims organization it is the first thing on the campaign brochure,” Rudiger says.

A blunt style

In Donna Cuomo’s case, victim advocacy is not just a line on her brochure. “She’s made a very full commitment to victim rights and she did so before she was a legislator,” says Heidi Urich, executive director for the Massachusetts Office or Victim Assistance.

Activist. Legislator. Cuomo is a little of both. The demarcation between one role and the other is sometimes unclear. Says Cuomo: “Being a legislator gets in the way of being an activist because you can’t always say what you want.” But Cuomo gives little evidence of holding her tongue. She’s not scripted and she doesn’t have a degree in diplomacy or nuance. She may try to amend her words later with a wink and a broad grin, but it’s usually too late.

Attorney General Scott Harshbarger “isn’t at the forefront of changing the criminal justice system;” former House Speaker Charles Flaherty is part of the “old boys’ network;” and a high-ranking Department of Corrections Official with whom she does not agree on a particular point, “just doesn’t get it.” She and her aide are not above trading giggly gossip about former House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Joseph McIntyre, D-New Bedford. All this aside, Cuomo has an undisputed knack for political timing. She picks an issue and sticks with it–some might even say to a fault. Cuomo concedes as much herself. “I’m not the typical person up there,” she says. “I just don’t back down. I’m persistent even though I don’t really have the clout.”

“I’m persistent even though I don’t really have the clout,” Cuomo says.

And when the state Republican party needs a pithy but powerful soundbite on crime, it turns to Cuomo.

“I think of her as a resource,” says Bill Vernon, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. “She has credibility on the crime issue. It’s just a little bit different than a Republican from the suburbs saying ‘Let’s get tough on crime.’ ”

Still, Cuomo’s legislative accomplishments have less to do with her ability to get things done than with her personal mythology. Cuomo has built a career out of talking a tough line on criminal punishment. She has introduced legislation that would increase from 15 to 25 years the amount of prison time second-degree murderers must serve before they are eligible for parole. In a savvy legislative move, Cuomo convinced Rep. Jim Brett, D-Dorchester, to help carry the legislation in the House, where it won passage earlier this year, only to be stalled in the Senate. Cuomo is known for her non-ideological style. However, while she has vigorously backed a variety of tough crime measures that have since become law, her behind-the-scenes role in helping to pass the bills appears to have been minimal. She was an enthusiastic backer of the “truth-in-sentencing” bill passed in 1993, which eliminated an offender’s ability to shave time off his sentence because of good behavior. She vocally supported a law passed earlier this year that requires the police and in some cases the community to be notified if a sexual offender moves into their neighborhood, and sat on the conference committee that crafted the final bill.

And, Cuomo is willing to argue that criminals should be forced to permanently forfeit some of their constitutional rights when they are convicted. “I think when you break the law,” Cuomo says, “you give up certain rights.”

Moreover, Cuomo believes prisoners should be forced to do some sort of labor–what exactly she’s not sure–in order to defray some of the costs associated with incarceration, and to discourage others from committing crime. “It’s not going to be a deterrent if all you are doing is sitting there watching television,” she says.

Critics contend that such methods do little to deter would-be criminals. Instead, they argue, it leads to prison overcrowding, which judges may try to alleviate by letting criminals convicted of lesser offenses off sooner.

“I think a lot of it is being driven by politics and is not borne out by the statistics about what is really happening in this society,” says John Roberts, executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU. “The problem with this kind of legislation is that it’s always passed based on the worst case scenario.”

“I along with everybody else have voted for some of these mandatory sentences over the years, but I am becoming less and less convinced that they are having any effect,” adds Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

For all her tough talk, Cuomo has surprised many observers with her unwavering opposition to the death penalty. Her explanation: “If you are trying to prevent violence and prevent people from suffering the way your family has suffered you are not really accomplishing anything by using violence to get rid of a murderer.”

“In some ways,” she adds with a slight laugh, “rotting in jail for the rest of your life can be a lot worse.”

But it is in her role as an advocate, as someone who’s “been there,” that Cuomo is allowed any measurable influence. When the family of Janet Downing, a Somerville woman murdered in 1994, contacted Cuomo to complain about a judge’s decision to allow the suspect, Downing’s 15-year-old neighbor Edward O’Brien, Jr., to go home on bail for Christmas, Cuomo swung into action. Her phone calls to Weld’s legal office and the Middlesex District Attorney helped to bring about a reversal. In a local newspaper, Cuomo managed to quietly accept credit. Kay Dulong, a Lynn activist whose 23-year-old son Larry was stabbed to death, says Cuomo’s ability to bargain for victims is a relief to many. “A lot of people cannot speak for themselves; they are either too shy to get the words out or else they are completely numb,” says Dulong. “To have somebody there who can speak for them means a lot.”

Election to the legislature has done little to dampen Cuomo’s involvement in Joey Fournier Services. She stepped down as president of the group’s board when she sought elected office, but functions as its executive director. During the work week, Cuomo tries to spend at least a few hours each day across the street from the State House, in the compact, $283-a-month corner suite that is the Beacon Street home of the organization.

In a move that failed to draw much notice, Cuomo tacked a provision onto the House’s recent assault weapons ban bill that would provide $1 million to the state to be used for violence prevention programs such as Second Step. The measure, co-sponsored by Rep. Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, was passed by the House but got stalled in the Senate. Looking elsewhere, Swan and Cuomo have since introduced a bill that seeks to raise the money through license plate sales.

Does this sort of legislation present a conflict? Cuomo doesn’t think so. “I try to promote the interest of violence prevention as much as I can,” Cuomo says. “I’ve just tried to be a voice for the cause.”

And at the end of a long day, Cuomo-the-true-believer knows there will be more for her to do tomorrow. More telephone calls to take from grieving victims, more bureaucratic snafus to contend with, more hard-headed lawmakers in need of “a reality check.”

Meet the Author
She simply refuses to let them forget.

“They have really blocked out of their minds what has happened to the victims of crime. Especially murder victims. They are dead, and gone, and forgotten.”