A former editor of High Times, a magazine that advocates marijuana culture, who once did federal prison time at Ray Brook has planted the seeds for a run at New York state's highest office.
Richard Stratton has filed initial paperwork with the state Board of Elections to run for governor in 2014. In a phone interview with the Enterprise on Monday, he said he "plans to mount a campaign and run" against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He said he wants to run as a Republican and will soon begin meeting with GOP county committees around the state.
Stratton, 66, is originally from Massachusetts, but he's lived in New York since his early 20s. He currently resides at Battery Park City, Manhattan, in an apartment that overlooks Ground Zero.
Stratton has had two books published, "Altered States of America: Outlaws and Icons, Hitmakers and Hitmen," and "Smack Goddess," the latter of which he wrote in prison. He co-wrote the 1998 film "Slam," which won the Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival, and he produced the Showtime crime drama "Street Time."
The gubernatorial hopeful has also served prison time for marijuana and hashish smuggling, an experience Stratton said helped shape his views on prison reform and drug laws.
Hard time in "God's country"
When Stratton says he's not your typical gubernatorial candidate, he's not kidding.
In 1982, Stratton was sentenced to 25 years and six months in prison for smuggling marijuana and hash. He ran the international operation for more than a decade before he was arrested in Los Angeles.
Stratton describes himself as a child of the '60s. He said he first tried marijuana when he was a student at Arizona State University. He said he understood that possessing and selling marijuana was criminal, but felt like the government lied to people about its effects.
"Marijuana, and marijuana use, and the imprisonment of Americans for the use of marijuana and other drugs, became kind of a symbol of what we felt was a kind of totalitarianism that was taking over," Stratton said.
Six years after he was sentenced, while being shuffled from prison to prison in what he called "Diesel Therapy," Stratton was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook. He wrote about his year there in a 2007 Adirondack Life magazine piece titled "Banished."
FCI, originally built to house athletes for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, was "strangely beautiful and peaceful," he wrote. At the time, the facility didn't have gun towers or high walls, and Stratton said the warden had a soft spot for flowers.
Stratton called the Adirondacks "God's country."
"I remember getting out of the bus when we arrived, and it was late at night, and looking up at the sky and seeing this incredible panorama of stars and it was gorgeous," he said. "The air was so clean and pure. The prison itself was crowded. It was comfortable, but it was crowded."
When Stratton arrived at FCI, his sentence had been shortened due to his successful, self-taught jailhouse lawyering. He was awaiting a new release date, and said the anxiety made the stretch in Ray Brook the hardest time he served.
"When you don't know how much longer you're going to be there - a week, two weeks, two years - you wake up every day thinking, 'How much more of this do I have to put up with?'"
He had a while longer to wait, during which he was transferred away from Ray Brook. He ended up learning his release date two weeks before he was freed, in 1990.
In case anyone wonders whether Stratton was eligible to vote after his prison sentence, he was; he registered upon his release.
Prison reform ideas
While in prison, Stratton said he met a lot of people who were locked up for nonviolent drug offenses.
"This was the '80s; this was when the prison boom was in full blossom," he said. "They were building federal prisons as fast as they could. When I went in, there was 120,000 people in federal prison. When I came out, there were hundreds of thousands of people in federal prison. Now, there's like 2.3 million people in prison in this country. We have more people in prison in this country than China and Russia put together."
Since his release, Stratton said he's worked to provide insight into the "prison industrial complex" and the "crime control establishment."
"I've been involved ever since in trying to ameliorate these harsh drug laws, including, in New York state, the Rockefeller drugs laws, which, thankfully, have now gradually been whittled away on so that we're not so extraordinarily coercive and draconian," he said.
Stratton said he'd like to bring back Pell grants for prisoners, which were outlawed by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994. He said most people he met in prison were there because they had a limited education. Many of them were minorities from inner city areas.
"I found that a lot of these guys were very creative people - smart - and they get involved with crime because they didn't know what else to do to try to break out of where they were living and the lack of opportunities that they had for getting a bigger part of the American dream," Stratton said.
Stratton said education is the only thing that's proven to cut down on recidivism.
A candidate who promotes marijuana legalization and increased educational opportunities for inmates would, in the eyes of most voters, fit well with the Libertarian Party, the Green Party or even the Democratic Party, right?
Stratton begs to differ.
"I think if you really look at Republican values, the traditional Republican values - Barry Goldwater Republicanism, Abraham Lincoln Republicanism, if you will, going way back," he said, "it's really about limiting the massive, expansive growth of big government."
Stratton said he's a fiscal conservative. He doesn't agree with the more conservative wing of the Republican Party when it comes to social issues.
"I'm for getting the government out of our bedrooms, getting the government out of our wallets, getting the government out of our lives to a large degree," Stratton said.
Stratton said Cuomo and President Barack Obama have done an OK job considering the cards they were dealt, but he doesn't think they have the right answers in the long run.
"I think we need to radically reshape politics, both on the state and the national level, so that there's so much less money being spent wastefully with these huge government programs that really aren't accomplishing anything," Stratton said. "Let the free markets work."
Stratton's message of smaller government and less spending will likely resonate with a lot of Republican voters, but for some, his background - the prison time, the support for marijuana legalization - will be an immediate turnoff.
Stratton said he knows he has some work to do, but he thinks there's a generation of younger Republicans in New York state who will agree with his platform.
Lake Placid booster
Stratton's campaign can't raise or spend money yet because it still needs to form a political committee. The paperwork filed this week is the first step in that process.
But the hopeful candidate does have some supporters, including Brian Barrett, a criminal defense lawyer from Lake Placid whose father, J. Patrick Barrett, once led the state's Republican committee, although he served as one of Cuomo's campaign chairs in 2010.
Barrett said his father's ties to Cuomo are a non-issue.
"I'm well aware that Governor Cuomo is currently well liked in this area and around the state," he said. "(But) the economy is not good in New York state. We overspend, we are overtaxed, and we have a governor who can't make up his mind on important issues like hydrofracking. A friendly personality and good looks may make you popular, but the governor's lack of leadership and indecisiveness could seriously haunt his popularity in the second half of his term."
Barrett said once the political committee is in place, the campaign will start to raise money and hire a formal staff.
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.