Sheldon Silver, the disgraced former Democratic speaker of the Assembly, came to Rochester years back—I know from having dinner with him—to look around, to eat, to be a political leader of the state he presumably led.
It was the sort of thing that Assembly speakers from New York City, as Silver was—born there and steeped in its speech and mannerisms—should do from time to time. They should start in Utica, if not Schenectady, and go west along the Thruway to see a New York unfamiliar to them. After all, New York City is one of the great cities of the world. Upstate New York, in contrast, is as unlike the great city as any small town is different from a glittering city in a distant place.
Sadly, Silver didn’t come just to look around. He came to our city—as he often did, I was told later—to buy a suit, or several, at the fall discount factory sale put on by Hickey Freeman. He would buy a suit, or several, for a much-reduced price. Then he would go back to New York City.
All this is as old as the flattened hills of New York. The state Legislature is populated, in large part, by people whose idea of upstate is that of an untended and unremarkable wilderness, where cows run free and to which the Second Avenue subway does not extend. The change occasioned by the November election—when the Democrats captured a majority of Senate seats—will only exacerbate this sort of misunderstanding.
The state Legislature is controlled by New York City and Long Island interests. A majority of the Assembly members are from there. And while the Senate is more upstate-oriented, downstate has more districts, and with control flipping to Democrats in January, New York City and its suburbs will gain influence.
Upstate has to try to counter that new accumulation of downstate power. It doesn’t mean a shift in power—upstate hasn’t controlled Albany for generations. It could mean, however, nearing a balance of power.
In many ways, New York is in a state of war with itself. New York City, wealthy and arrogant, is used to feeling itself majestically superior to upstate. For its part, upstate has settled into its role as the poor, disadvantaged cousin.
It is a war that can end only if upstate cities—Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo—confront the great behemoth from the south. The other, smaller cities can join too. Political salvation may come to a region that considers its goals collaborative, that recognizes the commonalities of the poor and racially isolated cities, the indistinct suburbs, the growing and generally conservative exurbs.
Upstate should shed all its trivial animosities—how much better than Rochester could Buffalo be, anyway?—and fight for its political life as an entity, a grouping, a region, if you will.
The idea of collaboration isn’t new. The regional economic development councils were set up with the idea that larger regions are better off when it comes to securing state funding than cities or counties. It’s often a matter of reaching across barriers created 100 years ago or more. The problems of Penn Yan, for example, won’t be included in Monroe County’s economic plan unless there is financial incentive to do so.
Rochester is getting short shrift from the downstaters in the Legislature? Buffalo could make supporting Rochester a public matter, as could Syracuse and Utica. Public pressure could be applied using a regional voice.
The idea is to think of Western New York as a unit, not as separate parts. The problems are too much alike not to do that.
Favoring downstate isn’t a cut-and-dried partisan issue. Some policymakers from both parties oppose the idea of doing anything to hurt the big city’s ability to make money and attract the large companies.
For example, one of the arguments against a statewide “millionaire’s tax” is that the wealthy will leave New York City for less-taxing climates, further straining upstate’s public and private finances, such as they are.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who may run for president on the Democratic line, has opposed a high-end tax—a liberal staple—to finance costs and support his expensive ventures.
In the face of that, this region needs political strength more than ever. Waiting another decade may mean to wait too long.
Tom Tobin is a writer and editor with 42 years of experience in the newspaper business, most of it in New York State.