Mario Cuomo: Governor of Mass Incarceration
by Pascal Robert
“His administration built more prisons in New York State than all prior governors combined.”
One of the most insidious ways the ruling class fosters unending loyalty to their “power elite” enterprise of global management is through veneration of their dead. The media and the chattering class will wax rhapsodic about the generosity and greatness of those towering figures who wielded their power to further the enterprise of American empire in a way that seemed so humane. This process is ultimately a trap for the millions of poor and working class folk scrambling to function in this society. It deludes them from a clear understanding that the American project is premised on protecting capital and the interests of capital. As former president Calvin Coolidge himself admitted, “The business of America is business.”
The latest example of this postmortem lionization started on January 1, 2015 when New York’s well regarded former governor, Mario Cuomo, died at the age of 82. As one born and raised in New York City, Mario Cuomo’s administration ruled from my youth to adulthood. He projected the image of the good hearted liberal Democratic patriarch who gave speeches about the duty to the poor while brandishing his “working class immigrant roots.” This type of Horatio Alger mythology is a common trope used to create even more fidelity in the hearts of the urban underclass – as if to say, “I’m one you guys, the little people.”
The ultimate hypocrisy of the Cuomo brand as some great champion of the working class is that his administration built more prisons in New York State than all prior governors combined at a time when prison construction was quite unpopular with both the citizenry and the state legislature. In the twelve years of his administration Cuomo added more prison beds than all the governors that came before him. One could argue that crime was on the rise, prisons were overcrowded, and the governor was responding to the reality on the streets. But this interpretation fails to realize that crime is as much a function of policy as the prisons built to house those offenders, as this article from the December, 1998, issue of The Atlantic illustrates:
“Senator Barry Goldwater had used the fear of crime to attract white middle-class voters a decade earlier, and Richard Nixon had revived the theme during the 1968 presidential campaign, but little that was concrete emerged from their demands for law and order. On the contrary, Congress voted decisively in 1970 to eliminate almost all federal mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders. Leading members of both political parties applauded the move. Mainstream opinion considered drug addiction to be largely a public-health problem, not an issue for the criminal courts. The Federal Bureau of Prisons was preparing to close large penitentiaries in Georgia, Kansas, and Washington. From 1963 to 1972 the number of inmates in California had declined by more than a fourth, despite the state's growing population. The number of inmates in New York had fallen to its lowest level since at least 1950. Prisons were widely viewed as a barbaric and ineffective means of controlling deviant behavior. Then, on January 3, 1973, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, gave a State of the State address demanding that every illegal-drug dealer be punished with a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole.”
“Mass Incarceration was not merely a tool of community control, it was a strategy of political neutralization.”
Let us understand that Mass Incarceration of particularly poor Black and Brown communities was a strategic tactic used after the urban rebellions and Black Power era when Black people were prepared to force America to come to terms with the sheer brutality they were experiencing at the hands of the police. Moreover, the Black Power movement created an awareness of the horrible inner city conditions Black people who had been left out of the New Deal, were experiencing. Mass Incarceration was not merely a tool of community control, it was a strategy of political neutralization.
In her great book, “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,” Naomi Murakawa does an excellent job of illustrating how warehousing poor Black and Brown communities in prison was not simply an agenda of the evil Republicans, but also the imperative of bleeding heart liberals like Mario Cuomo, Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden.
What is more vile than Cuomo simply building more prisons is how he actually financed his endeavor. Cuomo used an initiative to create housing for the poor as a method to gain financing for prisons. The initiative was actually put in place the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried as stated in the article referenced above:
“In 1981 New York's voters had defeated a $500 million bond issue for new prison construction. Cuomo searched for an alternate source of financing, and decided to use the state's Urban Development Corporation to build prisons. The corporation was a public agency that had been created in 1968 to build housing for the poor. Despite strong opposition from upstate Republicans, among others, it had been legislated into existence on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral, to honor his legacy. The corporation was an attractive means of financing prison construction for one simple reason: it had the authority to issue state bonds without gaining approval from the voters.
“Over the next twelve years Mario Cuomo added more prison beds in New York than all the previous governors in the state's history combined. Their total cost, including interest, would eventually reach about $7 billion. Cuomo's use of the Urban Development Corporation drew criticism from both liberals and conservatives. Robert Gangi, the head of the Correctional Association of New York, argued that Cuomo was building altogether the wrong sort of housing for the poor. The state comptroller, Edward V. Regan, a Republican, said that Cuomo was defying the wishes of the electorate, which had voted not to spend money on prisons, and that his financing scheme was costly and improper. Bonds issued by the Urban Development Corporation carried a higher rate of interest than the state's general-issue bonds.”
This is the legacy of Mario Cuomo you won’t see on MSNBC or CNN as they ramble about how he stood up to the onslaught of the Reagan revolution with nothing but a speech at the Democratic convention in 1984.
“Cuomo used an initiative to create housing for the poor as a method to gain financing for prisons.”
To digress, another reason Cuomo should never be forgotten is that we can thank him for the advent of Rudolph Giuliani as Mayor of New York City. Giuliani governed over the city when the police used “Giuliani Time” as a refrain to crack even more skulls. Remember Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo? Most folks outside of New York City would not remember that Mayor David Dinkins, the cities first and only Black mayor, was running for re-election against Rudy Giuliani in 1993. Democrat Mario Cuomo stabbed fellow Democrat David Dinkins in the back by signing a law in 1989, the year Dinkins was elected, to allow Staten Island to secede from New York City. The issue would be raised in the election in 1993 with the Staten Island Referendum. This is the most conservative borough in New York City and is filled with Italian Americans who supported the referendum. Their increased number created the slim margin that gave Giuliani the election. So, the rise of one of New York’s most noxious political figures is a direct product of the kind-hearted liberal Mario Cuomo. Giuliani was supposedly asked to support Cuomo in his fourth term re-election bid in exchange for the governor’s good will.
Crime is a function of poverty, lack of community capital, and a need to create underground illegal economies where traditional employment avenues become scarce. This is especially the case when urban centers de-industrialize by shipping good union and factory jobs to other locations. The American project has long since abandoned notions of a “Marshall Plan for the ghettoes,” or a New Deal 2.0 to finally do justice to those people left out of the first New Deal. The bleeding heart liberal claptrap of the Cuomos, Clintons, Bidens and Obamas is merely a smokescreen to keep those on the margins believing something will be done. We are now in the age of Neoliberal Capitalism. This is merely a fancy way of saying the government is giving up all its functions and obligations over to private corporations. Government is completely abandoning the project of building human capital among those not previously positioned to acquire it because they’re born on the low rung of the economic ladder. We are moving to the age of American feudalism.
Pascal Robert is an Iconoclastic Haitian American Lawyer, Blogger, and Online Activist for Haiti. For years his work appeared under the Blog Thought Merchant: http://thoughtmerchant.wordpress.com/ You can also find his work on the Huffington Post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pascal-robert/ He can be reached via twitter at https://twitter.com/probert06 @probert06 or [email protected]