Politically, much of upstate New York has teetered between rage and resignation for years. Begin with the rage: upstate New Yorkers are far likelier than Gothamites to agree with Tea Party supporters across the country in viewing the federal government as a threat to their interests, and they take an even harsher view of their own state government. Nationally, most Tea Partiers look favorably on their state governments, but upstaters often consider Albany a semi-criminal enterprise run out of Manhattan. No wonder: the state’s executive-level leadership—its governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—all hail from the New York City metro area, while upstate New York contains nine of the ten counties in America paying the highest property taxes as a percentage of home values, thanks partly to the fact that Albany requires counties to pay for a portion of Medicaid.
Upstate’s sense of betrayal is reflected in the extraordinary support that Buffalo’s angry Carl Paladino received in winning the GOP gubernatorial primary. Paladino, who had to petition his way onto the ballot, trounced the Republican designee, Rick Lazio, with nearly two-thirds of the vote in a contest that drew twice the Republican turnout of 2006. In the words of one Tea Partier I talked with, “Carl speaks my rage.” But in local races for seats in the New York State Assembly, voters seem more resigned to a future in which the big-spending New York City delegation, dominated by the public-sector unions, maintains its stranglehold on the assembly. Even in what looks like a GOP year nationally, just recruiting Republican candidates to run for the assembly has proved arduous.
The upstaters whom Ed Koch famously referred to as “hicks” before he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1982 are the heirs of proud traditions. In the mid-nineteenth century, these “hicks” seeded both the feminist and the abolitionist movements. In the late nineteenth century, upstate New York, then the manufacturing heart of America, gave birth to the Chautauqua movement for adult education, which spread across the country. Much as today’s Tea Partiers hold discussions about constitutional government, the Chautauquas organized popular but elevated debates on the pressing issues of the day. President Theodore Roosevelt described them as “the most American thing in America.”
But with the 1959 completion of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which undercut Buffalo’s historical role as a transportation hub between the Atlantic Ocean and the Midwest, and the decline into obsolescence of most of the area’s manufacturing, the upstate region entered a downturn that has only deepened over the years. In Western New York, for example, one of the few growth industries (aside from government jobs in health and education) is economic development agencies, also funded by the state and federal governments. Buffalo, where one-fifth of the housing is abandoned, is among the per-capita national leaders in federal community-development block grants. A bemused Canadian official from thriving Niagara Falls, Ontario, who spends a good deal of time across the river in insolvent Niagara Falls, New York, observed to Governing: “I sometimes get the feeling that the state plan for economic development in the region is to employ people as economic developers.”
A patch of another upstate region, the Southern Tier, resembles Appalachia in its poverty. The area between the Catskills and Binghamton, itself an asphalt ghost town, is filled with broken-down towns inhabited by worn-down people. There is a potential bright spot: the Southern Tier, like northern Pennsylvania, sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a vast source of natural gas. While there are important environmental issues to consider in opening the area for exploration—such as preserving the New York City watershed—New York has initiated no development so far, and environmentalists seem determined not to allow any. Meanwhile, west of Binghamton and on the Pennsylvania side of the border, a natural-gas boom is going on.
New York’s next governor will face the task of reconciling the estrangement between coastal and midwestern New York. When I asked a well-educated upstate friend what he thought upstate should do if Andrew Cuomo—who plans to revive the region by rearranging its economic development agencies—wins the governor’s race, he replied, only half-jokingly: “We have to secede.” Here is the one area in which New York already leads the country: its residents, seceding on their own, have made it Number One in outmigration among the states. Or to use another word, they are resigning as New Yorkers.