ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first official action upon assuming office in 2011 was to ease up on security measures that had earned the Capitol the derisive nickname “Fort Pataki,” named for the three-term governor who ousted Cuomo’s father in 1994. Executive Order No. 1 removed some concrete barriers that had been placed near the building and reopened the hallway near his office to the public.
“To get into this Capitol is like running an obstacle course, and it shouldn’t be,” the governor said in his first inaugural address. “This is the peoples’ meeting place and they should be invited in. And today, my friends, we will reopen the Capitol, literally and figuratively.”
Eight years later, a series of gradual security upgrades means that visitors to the Capitol encounter an obstacle course more daunting than it was in 2011. The screening line at the most commonly used entrance frequently stretches hundreds of people deep and can take over an hour to get through. When visitors finally pass through a checkpoint that increasingly resembles those found at airports, the first thing they often see is a state trooper carrying an assault rifle.
Welcome to Fort Cuomo.
“There’s a feeling that it’s no longer the peoples’ house, and you’re a guest. And that’s to put it kindly,” said John McEneny, who represented an Assembly district that included the Capitol for two decades and quite possibly knows more about the building’s past than anyone. “We’ve lost a very great deal in it.”
Security in the Capitol began to increase well before Cuomo took office, and it might be best to view his temporary interest in rolling it back as an aberration in a decadeslong trend.
The Senate first installed metal detectors near its chamber after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Not long after Gov. George Pataki assumed office in 1995, the hallway near the governor’s second-floor office — the one later reopened by Cuomo — was shut down. The heavily armed trooper became a regular presence after terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.
But the most significant change came after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when several entrances were permanently closed off to the public. Anybody who did not work in the Capitol or conjoined Legislative Office Building, from schoolchildren on field trips to groups of activists planning to rally inside the building, now had to pass through metal detectors at one of four checkpoints before entering.
Mountains of anecdotal evidence suggest the lines outside these checkpoints have grown longer in recent months. The wait time is always bad in the early March crunch of pre-budget lobby days. But this year, queues stretching 200 people deep were a common sight, and there were occasions where the line was much longer.
“Things have really slowed down,” the Alliance for Quality Education’s Billy Easton, a regular presence in the halls of the Capitol for years, said on a particularly busy day. “It’s good to have security, but we also need to have things as functional as possible, so I feel like the state should make sure that … we’re not jamming up everything, which is definitely happening.”
“We’ve definitely all increased our wait times,” said another lobbyist. “It’s a much more involved process. You have to pick and choose your spots when you come into the building.”
Numerous Capitol regulars attributed the longer lines to changes implemented on the first day of session this year. With little fanfare, guards began requiring visitors to take off their belts before passing through metal detectors, regardless of whether the belts contain metal. While the state police said a requirement that electronic devices like laptops and cell phones be removed from bags and placed in bins was not new this year, numerous regulars said they had not been asked to comply with it before this year.
State police spokesperson William Duffy said the belt policy was implemented because “buckles would often set off the metal detectors.” They were aiming to “eliminate a major cause of multiple passes through … and reduce the wait time for screening.”
But it seems the change has done the opposite, as visitors are left digging through their bags or fumbling with their pants when they get to the front of the line.
“The fact that there are no signs telling people who aren’t often in the Capitol what the expectations are causes a lot of confusion when they get to the security checkpoint itself,” said one lobbyist. “That slows things down a lot.”
“I understand the need to follow the rules, but my belt doesn’t even set off the metal detector but I have to take it off anyways,” Easton said.
The Empire Center’s E.J. McMahon similarly noted he has worn his belt through airport security “about a hundred times without taking it off or tripping anything,” but is still required to take it off while entering the Capitol.
“It’s easy for people who want this, which is mainly people in government, to dismiss this as just carping over an inconvenience for people who don’t want to wait in line,” he said. “But it sends a very important and ultimately demeaning message to the public.”
Duffy said the state troopers do not keep track of how long it takes people to get processed through security. But he said the belt policy has made things better.
“The removal of waist belts has worked as intended — there has been a decrease in the number of second screenings, which had been the main source of delays,” he said. “While we make every attempt to move people through the checkpoints as efficiently as possible, our top priority is to ensure the safety and security of those who work and visit the Capitol.”
McMahon believes that even the presence of metal detectors is an example of “the security state run amok.”
“How come we don’t have the government screening people entering Crossgates Mall?” he said. “Why is every subway stop in New York City unguarded and unscreened? How come I can walk in and out of the park with impunity? Why are you worried about the New York State Capitol in particular? The reason they did it is not because it’s a bigger target; they did it because they could. …”
“There are people out there more than willing to say [removing the detectors would] make it less safe for us. And you know what? Marginally, to a very slight mathematically indiscernible extent, yup. But again, if you’re afraid of walking into a state capitol that doesn’t have metal detectors, why in the world would you ever go near Grand Central Terminal?”
For those who do not want Albany to join the roughly 20 state capitols that don’t have any metal detectors at all, there are still certainly options for reducing lines, even if officials wanted to keep the new rule on belts. State employees and those classified as vendors (including reporters) currently receive ID cards that let them bypass security. Some have suggested privately that the state should consider extending those cards to more people. If the state charged an individual a modest fee, it could conduct background checks at no cost to taxpayers.
“I wonder if there’s a potential for a TSA Precheck-like service to be created,” said one regular visitor. “I think it would speed things up for people who are frequently in the Capitol.”
That would, of course, also speed things up for everybody who comes. The fewer people in line in front of schoolchildren on a field trip, the less time the schoolchildren will have to wait. And it wouldn’t be hard for these background checks to be at least as sweeping as whatever minimal standards are currently used to screen those who currently receive cards: There’s a long list of high-profile officials who have been arrested or convicted on serious and even violent charges over the years, yet have been able to retain their security clearance and avoid the screening to which crime-free members of the public are subjected.
But while that idea has been bandied about occasionally over the years, there has never been any rush to act on it — perhaps due to the likelihood the next day’s tabloids would feature a headline assailing Cuomo for literally selling access to the Capitol to lobbyists.
Another possible solution would be a simple mandate requiring screening areas to be fully staffed on busy days. Even when the Legislature is in session, it’s certainly not uncommon to find several of the scanners at the highly trafficked concourse entrance closed down.
But while activists and other visitors might increasingly grumble about how difficult it is to access their government, no politicians have publicly raised concerns. While the growth of security at the Capitol has coincided with decades during which violent crime has plummeted, it’s also overlapped with an era in which incidents like mass shootings have made Americans increasingly supportive of more intrusive security measures. New York City, home to an ever-increasing share of the state’s political leaders, is home to millions of people who have become accustomed to the impositions of the security state.
Power in the Legislature also has begun to shift toward a younger generation. And while many of these millennials have made reforming the way people interact with their elected officials a key motif of their campaigns, not one has spoken up on the hurdles faced by those wishing to exercise the most fundamental democratic right of petitioning their government.
“I watched it get tightened almost every time I’ve gone in, because I have a comparison,” McEneny said. “I think if you just got here as a new person you were brought up in [a different] age. … It’s society. And there’s a lot of changes like that, and most of that is the price of 9/11.”
“To me, the travesty is that with each year there are fewer people around who remember [the old way of operating] and that we’re normalizing this ridiculous process,” said McMahon.
As such, the dwindling number of Capitol regulars who remember the years before Pataki’s tenure are thus left with little hope the state will ever take even modest steps toward returning to the halcyon days of the past.
“When I was a kid, you could run through the place 24 hours a day,” said McEneny.
“You might be coming down the elevator of the Capitol and the door would open on the second floor,” recounted McMahon. “And Mario Cuomo would get in his with sole bodyguard, Major Burke of the State Police. That was a very common event.”
“Now the needle has swung all the way in the other direction, and the unmistakable message that the Legislature sends to the public is ‘you are not to be trusted.’”