Mario Cuomo’s Rise to Liberal Icon Status

During his three-term tenure as Governor of New York State from 1983 to 1994, Mario Cuomo ascended to icon status in liberal political circles. With his talent for public speaking, coupled with his vision of “progressive pragmatism” reminiscent of beloved reformers like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia, Cuomo proved highly endearing to a Democratic Party increasingly crushed and alienated by the small government, free market rhetoric of the Reagan administration in Washington.

Aside from his early stance against the death penalty, Cuomo is perhaps most remembered today for his Keynote Address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Speaking in San Francisco to a crowd of DNC members, Cuomo powerfully argued on behalf of those Americans who, due to poverty, deindustrialization and outsourcing of jobs, as well as newly enacted fiscal austerity measures from the White House, struggled to live with dignity. With its populist righteousness and optimistic outlook toward the capacity of government to improve people’s lives, this speech enshrined Cuomo as the Democrats’ “great progressive hope,” and forever associated him with a lasting image of American inequality as a “tale of two cities.”

intro_image pictured: Joseph Kennedy II (left), Mario Cuomo (center), Raymond Flynn (right)

Yet, despite his liberal accolades and skillful oration, Mario Cuomo’s most lasting legacy as Governor of New York is his dramatic expansion of the state’s prison system. Indeed, during his eleven years in Albany, Cuomo himself would oversee the further entrenchment of the “tale of two cities” in New York State through the development of more prisons than each of his fifty-one predecessors combined (Schlosser 2020). Over the course of his three terms, Cuomo oversaw the construction of 30 correctional facilities, each of which were located in upstate districts represented by Republicans in the State Senate. In total, the development of these 38 facilities cost New York State taxpayers over $1.5 billion, with an additional $425 million spent on payroll and operating expenditures each year (Hooks 2004).

For the Cuomo administration, this policy of “carceral Keynesianism” was born in response to drug related crime statewide, as well as a growing statewide deficit and increasing economic blight in various upstate regions. By rapidly expanding the prison system, state officials argued, New York could stimulate economic growth, jobs production, and regional development in struggling rural sections of northern New York State, all while accommodating its rising prison population and mitigating overcrowding. Aside from failure of promised economic benefits to materialize in Upstate New York, Cuomo’s policy of prison-led “municipal welfare” has resulted in statewide spatial inequities, shackling deindustrialized rural regions to the prison system, and binding their economies to the mass incarceration of primarily black and brown men from major cities which fuels it.

Upon Cuomo’s inauguration in 1983, the New York State prison population had swelled from 12,444 to 27,943 in just a (Bernstein 2019). Such explosive growth was primarily the result of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, a draconian set of statutes which put in place mandatory minimum sentencing laws for narcotics possession. Under these laws, first enacted by Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller in 1973 and eventually inspiring similar laws in several other states, citizens found with four or more ounces of narcotics were mandatorily punished with fifteen years to life in prison. To put this in perspective, such a sentence was practically the same as that for people found guilty of second degree murder (Williams 2021).

In the mid-1980s, the crack epidemic exacerbated the already fervent pro-incarceration sentiments held by many politicians and American citizens, leading to the further advancement of “tough on crime” policies and laws in Washington and in various state legislatures. Additionally, just six days into Cuomo’s first term, a prisoner uprising took place at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, with inmates holding nineteen prison employees hostage for nineteen days. With the prison system threatening to boil over into chaos similar to that of New York’s bloody Attica Prison Riot in 1973, Cuomo pursued the expansion of the state’s carceral infrastructure almost immediately, authorizing funding for 3,400 new state prison cells in his very first year as Governor (The New York Times 1983).

Compounding the issues faced by its new executive, New York State in 1983 faced a looming budget deficit of $579 million which experts warned could grow to $1.8 billion the following year (Spain 1983). With an ongoing trend of statewide depopulation, New York’s tax rolls were shrinking just as quickly as urgent problems were intensifying. Though Cuomo espoused the virtues of social welfare and progressive governance during his campaign, the ongoing neoliberal turn, in effect since the early 1970s but intensified by the popularity of both Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, had gained the hearts and minds of countless voters, legislators, and government bureaucrats, souring them on government intervention and ensuring their non-compliance with any proposed expansion of the social safety net.

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In recent years, momentum has grown among anti-carceral social movements, perhaps felt most intimately in New York City with the ongoing fight to permanently shut down Rikers Island, but also throughout the State with several actions targeting the state capital. Relatedly, low-level drug arrests have decreased ever so slightly since the 90s, leading to dwindling prisoner populations in certain upstate areas, leading to the looming question of whether to close prisons which act as the economic anchors of dozens of Upstate municipalities.

Such a development has led to a political backlash across a variety of Upstate towns and counties, in which prisons, and therefore the incarceration of human beings – typically young, black, poor, and from just 4-to-5 New York City neighborhoods – are seen as the vital economic lifeblood of areas which have struggled since the flight of industry many decades ago. Conversely, any attempt by downstate legislators and activists to reduce the size of the carceral system is seen as a direct attack on these towns and the families who live in them.

With this project, we hope to illuminate how this troubling situation has arisen, with the false and unsustainable promise of Carceral Keynesianism pursued by the Cuomo administration from 1983-1984. Moreso, we hope to illuminate and criticize the disturbing current political predicament New York State finds itself in, in order to note the shortsighted and destructive nature of a revered politician’s most lasting legacy.


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United States Census. “Employment, income, place of employment, and place of residence data.” US Decennial Census, PUMS level via IPUMS USA, 1960-2010. Incarceration Rate by Census Tract (2010) NYS Legislative Taskforce on Demographic Research and Reapportionment. “2010 Amended Population (Prisoner Adjustment).” 2010. Prison Policy Initiative. “Correctional Facility Locator.” 2010.