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Cuomo fast tracks restoration of Capitol

ALBANY -- An hour before Wednesday's State of the State address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo acted in a scene familiar to politicians of all stripes: He led a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The brief, telegenic ritual marked the ongoing but ahead-of-schedule renovations to the state Capitol.

In addition to a renovated skylight, Cuomo and his staff have organized the placement of numerous historic displays around the building -- including newly arranged and annotated portraits of past governors, artifacts such as a stock certificate from the Erie Canal, and even vintage gubernatorial vehicles in the adjacent Empire State Plaza concourse area.

A noted history buff, Cuomo has long discussed his desire to make the Capitol a more attractive destination for schoolchildren as well as adults who care about the state's heritage. It's also a reminder of Cuomo's keen sense of political symbolism.

In addition to reminding New Yorkers that he put the larger renovations to the Capitol's upper reaches, which have gone on for 11 years, on a fast track, he's also working to turn the building from a symbol of sloth and corruption into a jewel that hearkens back to the bygone decades when New York was an innovator for the nation and the world.

"It was reflective of his shrewdness and insight that he grasped the renovation of the Capitol as a symbol that people would relate to," said Bob Master, political director for the Communications Workers of America in New York.

Early in his second State of the State speech, Cuomo alluded to the Capitol project as a small-scale version of New York's "grim" condition in recent years: "Our Capitol was a symbol of the deterioration and the decline," he said. "It was under a renovation for 11 years, believe it or not; scheduled to take four more years. By the time the renovation was finished, we would have had to start a renovation all over again."

Now the job is scheduled to be completed this year. "He shaved off four years," said an approving state Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn.

The remake also fits in Cuomo's do-it-yourself style of micromanagement.

He had his staff gather dozens of portraits of former governors, a draft of the state constitution, and even a Adirondack guide boat to be put on display. Many of the items had been warehoused out of public view for decades.

Cuomo simply took the objects out of storage, enlisted some historians for advice, and put them out there -- turning the Capitol into a de facto extension of the neighboring State Museum.

"The Capitol is symbolic," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, who said the changes took strides toward "restoring the Capitol to being the people's building."

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