There is a whole lot of New York north of the Bronx, and it’s in great pain. But you’d never know it from the gubernatorial campaign’s sole major-candidate debate, on October 23, in which Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Republican challenger, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, had nothing to say about that vast geographic sweep of the Empire State. To his credit, Molinaro has challenged the governor to a second debate focusing on issues affecting upstate, but Cuomo has stonewalled.
Upstaters looking for someone to champion their issues have had to look, instead, to the longest of longshot candidates: former Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, running on the ballot line of the newly created Serve America Movement. The one-time Cuomo ally—he handpicked her to co-chair the state Democratic Committee—brings an apostate’s anger to the task, along with an upstate native’s eye.
Apart from its health and higher-education sectors, New York’s upstate economy is in steep decline. The region is hemorrhaging population. And for a long time, the only person paying close attention to Cuomo’s ham-fisted efforts at economic stimulus was former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who indicted an all-star cast of since-convicted, sticky-fingered former gubernatorial aides and allies.
Miner was watching, too. Her formerly collegial relationship with the governor is a dim memory. The mutual enmity is well-earned, in Miner’s view, being driven by the governor’s short-shrift approach to upstate issues—“When I said we should be investing in infrastructure, [Cuomo] said, ‘Build your own pipes’”—and the astonishing corruption that has plagued the governor’s first two terms. “I feel . . . the frustration that people have over the corruption that is almost daily now in New York State,” Miner says.
The corruption needs no elaboration. The short shrift is more nuanced, but Cuomo has done virtually nothing over nearly eight years to set matters right. When Miner complains about the governor’s unwillingness to address upstate infrastructure needs, she’s implicitly criticizing the refusal of New York’s political class to tackle the featherbedding and work-rule abuses written into state law that make public-works projects in New York among the most expensive on the planet. Better that the bridges fall into the rivers than the construction unions and contractors’ associations go AWOL when it’s time to raise campaign cash.
Similarly, Cuomo’s economic-development schemes for upstate not only have generated scandals and multiple federal criminal convictions, with perhaps more on the way; they also haven’t worked. Whether it’s the Buffalo Billion boondoggle—essentially a $1.5 billion rent-seeking scheme for Elon Musk’s teetering pipedream of a solar-energy empire—or the more modest $15 million film-production hub in Miner’s Syracuse, the Cuomo projects haven’t come close to providing the promised jobs. “[Cuomo made] this big announcement and [said] Hollywood is coming to Onondaga . . . and then promised jobs and then years later there are no jobs, it’s a big empty hub and then you see that millions of taxpayer dollars were spent,” says Miner. (Albany eventually sold the white-elephant Syracuse studio for $1, rather than continue to carry an empty building.)
Arguably the most egregious failing of Cuomo’s upstate approach was his choice of gambling casinos over hydrocarbon extraction as a development strategy. Opposition to the casinos was thin, while fracking’s enemies were fierce, so the choice was easy for Cuomo. But while the gambling dens haven’t failed outright quite yet, none are making enough money to fulfill their obligations to local governments. While northern Pennsylvania prospers from fracking, New York’s Southern Tier—located squarely over the same resource base—suffers because of Cuomo’s extraction ban.
Meanwhile, New York City’s tax base is pumping out revenue faster than Mayor Bill de Blasio can spend it, and Cuomo has devoted his share of the take to city-centric purposes like Medicaid expansion. Apart from the governor’s fruitless pump-priming schemes, upstate is lucky to get even a small taste. And, critically, none of the money is going to tax reduction, public-sector work-rule reform, or the like. No surprise, then, that the region has substantially lagged the Northeast in recovery from the 2008 recession, and that population out-migration is accelerating.
Cuomo refuses to talk about any of this, though Molinaro would like to engage him. Meantime, Miner’s candidacy is essentially a rounding error in the polls as Election Day approaches. This doesn’t make upstate’s predicament any less pressing; just less visible.
Bob McManus is a City Journal contributing editor.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images