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On Sing Sing

November 11, 2010

Throughout the gubernatorial campaign, we lamented Andrew Cuomo’s minimalist approach to public relations. He picked his spots. He said what he wanted to say, and then he withdrew, sometimes for weeks at a time. While this campaign approach was remarkably successful for him, it certainly wasn’t fulfilling for those of us who enjoy a robust public dialogue.

We’ve now begun the Cuomo era, and nothing has changed. Cuomo very carefully plans his own events and he and he alone determines what he is going to say at those events. (There’s really no such thing as a “handler” with this governor. He is absolutely his own man.)

Given this fact, everything Cuomo does has some significance. In this regard, his decision to visit Ossining Correctional Facility yesterday involved more than meets the eye.

A handful of media outlets noted the history of the Cuomos at Sing Sing, but none of them delved into the fascinating background. For your edification, we will try to do so:

When Mario Cuomo was in his very first week as governor in 1983, a riot occurred at Sing Sing prison. Some 17 guards and prison employees were taken hostage and, for several days, the situation captivated national attention.

It was an early test of the new governor and his top aide at the time – his son, Andrew. The elder Cuomo wrote about this situation in his diaries, and talked about it afterword as an extraordinary test of his leadership capabilities.

Cuomo was actually criticized in some quarters for at first offering to negotiate with the inmates. Those critics said that having the governor involved would empower the hostage takers. They thought the liberal Cuomo was too soft to handle the crisis.

But Cuomo stood firm. State officials would not negotiate the inmate’s list of demands until hostages were released.

Ultimately, the situation was defused, and Cuomo took credit. The legend is that Cuomo “tenaciousness” is what saved the day.

Since nothing in Andrew Cuomo’s world is a coincidence, we presume that he was trying to communicate some message with his visit to Sing Sing.

But we’re not quite sure what the message is. It would seem to be a stretch to equate the powder keg atmosphere of the overcrowded prisons in the early 80s and the situation in Albany 30 years later.  (But it is true that more and more lawmakers are felons!)

We presume that what he’s trying to communicate is that he, too, will be tenacious when he has to be – such as in budget talks with lawmakers and in dealing with unions.

The irony, though, is that the rioters ultimately achieved something significant. Conditions in the prisons did improve. In fact, the riot spurred Cuomo to launch a massive prison construction program to address overcrowding. And over the next 12 years, he added more prison beds than any other governor in history.

The prison boom turned out to be source of chagrin and embarrassment for Mario Cuomo. He called it stupid and an immoral waste of scarce revenues, and said he did it only because it was an obligation forced on him by the dictates of the law, specifically the Rockefeller Drug Law.

But the prison boom was also a source of political capital for Cuomo. He strongly opposed the death penalty, and building new prisons shielded him from charges of being soft on crime. It was also an economic boon to many upstate communities.

This is our history lesson for the day, and our reflection on the always complicated calculations of our new Governor. Just don’t ask us to explain his visit to a state psych center, a media event that also occurred yesterday.





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