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New York Towns Are Plotting to Secede to Pennsylvania

New York's red-blue identity crisis has reached a boiling point, as Southern Tier towns threaten to revolt over Governor Cuomo's liberal policies.
25 February 2015, 6:41am
Photo by Matt Ried via Flickr

I'm a native New Yorker, and the schisms in my home state have always existed just north of the Bronx, past Westchester County. Below it, you have Downstate—people living inside or just outside New York City who talk like New Yawkahs and cannot understand why their city hasn't replaced Albany as the state capital. Above that divide, you have Upstate—New Yorkers living in smaller, more rural towns near Syracuse, and Binghamton, and Rochester, who talk like they're from Canada or Virginia, and feel more closely aligned, both politically and spiritually, with the Great Lakes than they do with the East River.

Put simply, New York has an identity crisis: Yes, the state may be deep blue, but it's not as liberal as its reputation may suggest. Pockets of red exist throughout the state, particularly in more rural or economically depressed regions. Most of the time, these political outliers are conveniently ignored, outgunned, nand outspent by their liberal counterparts in Manhattan and the Hamptons. But last week, tensions over the state's Mason-Dixon-esque divide reached a boiling point.

Fifteen towns, in an area known as the Southern Tier, announced that they would consider seceding from the Empire State to join their more conservative brethren across the border in Pennsylvania. The Upstate New York Towns Association, the group behind the efforts, has pointed to two main issues as the reason for the break: gas and taxes.

It's not the first time a New York entity has proposed this: In 2008, a band of rebellious Long Islanders kicked around the idea of declaring their own statehood. But this time around, the motives for the Southern Tier's move are more understandable and say something about the internal divisions facing the country as a whole.

The town of Conklin, New York, is a tableau of classic Rust Belt imagery: closed factories, foreclosed homes, "For Sale" signs. Two major floods in recent years added to the town's already long list of hardships. "There's nothing going on here," James Finch, the town supervisor and a major proponent of the Southern Tier secessionist movement, told me. "Our kids go to college and don't come back. There's nothing here for them."

Even if the secession talk will probably amount to nothing, this is the underlying sentiment of the Southern Tier movement, hitting home on a major theme of America in 2015. A growing segment of the lower and middle classes living outside of cities feel disenfranchised by, and disenchanted with, the economic policies promoted by progressive politicians in Washington and blue-state capitals like Albany and Boston.

In this specific case, the culprit is New York's Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. For the towns located in Broome, Tioga, and Sullivan counties, the problem is administration policies that they see as having disturbed the balance between north and south, a tightrope that every New York governor is informally forced to walk after being sworn in. According to Finch, the powder keg was ignited by Cuomo's decision this past December to institute a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing—or what Finch refers to as "safe gas drilling"—and further exacerbated by the news that none of New York's new casino development would reach the Southern Tier.

Back in December, CUNY political science professor Doug Muzzio told the Wall Street Journal that the fracking ban could prompt political backlash outside of the more liberal swathes of New York state. "All in all, it's going to prove a controversial decision that creates blowback," Muzzio said. "It helps, and it hurts."

To an extent, the Southern Tier secession movement is the extreme consequence of the blowback Muzzio warned would occur. "Secession talk is just that—talk by some born out of frustration," Muzzio told me this week. "Ain't happening. Not all in Southern Tier are opposed to the ban by any means."

"Not that Southern Tier is not often neglected by State and in need of jobs and economic rejuvenation," he added.

In a phone call Monday, Finch characterized this intra-state anxiety. "Everything goes to New York City and nothing stays here," Finch explained. "They dictate what goes on in the rest of the state. It's like New York should be Washington, DC. And there's nothing we can do about it."

That powerless feeling of inequality—the perception that New York's economic recovery has benefited only Wall Street and emerging market oligarchs looking for a place to stash their billions—is borne out by the state's 2014 unemployment numbers. Last year, the 10 downstate counties added 223,000 jobs (a 3.1 percent increase), while the 52 counties upstate only added 36,700 jobs (a 1.3 percent increase).

Finch said that the divide could also be seen in last year's gubernatorial election results. On Election Night 2014, the majority of upstate New York was painted solid red, while Cuomo's election victory came mostly on the support of his base in the city's metro areas. "He didn't win up in the Southern Tier," Finch said. "New York City elected Cuomo."

The tale of the Southern Tier secessionist movement also highlights national issues that the US is struggling to resolve. In recent years, natural gas drilling and fracking have brought an economic boom to rural American towns that had seen many of their jobs shipped overseas in the second half of the 20 th century, cleaning the rust off much of the Rust Belt. While environmentalists continue to question whether the cost of the domestic shale boom has been worth the economic stimulus, the towns along the border of New York and Pennsylvania show both edges of that sword.

To the north, you have New York, where environmentalists have largely won the war against fracking, possibly to the economic detriment of towns like Conklin. On the other side of the border is Pennsylvania, where gas and property taxes are lower, and where the natural gas boom has led to an economic resurgence, often with environmentally disastrous effects.

To Finch, it is clear which side is winning. "The people there were depressed for a long time, but now they're doing great," he said. "They all have new cars, new siding on their homes, new stores opening up."

In his State of the State address last month, Cuomo sought to mend ties with the broken Southern Tier, promising to push for casino licenses and proposing a $50 million bailout of sorts for the region. The package would invest in clean energy and agriculture there, as well as host bids for green companies to win state funding.

"The farmer in the Southern Tier who is struggling to make ends meet, that farmer is our brother," Cuomo said.

But the chance to save that brother, Finch argued, has long past: "He proposed farming subsidies, but we have farmers who have gone out of business."

"After the one-two punch to our community from the recent casino and gas drilling decisions, my office received many emails, phone calls and messages from constituents calling for a Southern Tier secession from New York State," Republican State Senator Tom Libous, who represents the counties included in the secession effort, said in a statement to VICE. "While getting my constituents' opinion on spending the $5 billion surplus was our top priority, I thought a question on secession should also be included in the survey."

In that survey sent out to his constituents, Senator Libous office added a question: "Some Kirkwood & Conklin residents want those towns to secede to Pennsylvania. Would you support that?" His press office said the results of the survey are still being collected and would be released in coming weeks. However, Finch said he's received great feedback and encouragement from his fellow Conklin residents about the secession efforts. Cuomo's office has not responded to VICE's requests for comment.

To secede from New York, the Upstate New York Towns' Association's proposal would have to be passed by both the New York and Pennsylvania State Legislatures, and then receive a stamp of approval by the federal government. So yes, as much as they might dislike their fellow downstaters, chances are the Southern Tier towns will have to continue to live with its New York zip code. But the threat of secession is a nuclear option that residents can use to make some noise, Finch said.

"You can send three, four or five busloads of people to Albany to protest, but what will that do?" he asked me. "Now, we're all over the radio, the television, and the Internet. It's an awareness campaign, if anything. So maybe, the Governor will ask himself, 'What will we do now to fix them?'"

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