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Why Upstate New Yorkers Have Turned on Hillary Clinton

The fight to win voters outside Manhattan underscores a national divide between liberal, urban elites, and the more rural, blue-collar voters who feel forgotten and screwed by politics-as-usual.

by John Surico
Apr 19 2016, 12:30am

James Finch, a town supervisor in upstate New York, says he's supporting Donald Trump in the state's upcoming primary. Photo by William Edwards/AFP/Getty Images

"Hellooo, New York!" Sean Hannity yelled into a microphone. "Thank you very much for being here!" The audience erupted in cheers. "And thank you very much, Governor Cuomo!" The crowd responded in kind.

It was Friday afternoon, at the Forum Theatre for the Performing Arts in Binghamton, New York, and Hannity was standing in front of a large "TRUSTED" banner. In a few minutes, Texas Senator Ted Cruz would be joining him on the stage, for a live broadcast interview with the Fox News showman. But before that, the coiffed conservative talking a head—a Long Island native with an estimated net worth of $30 million—wanted to let the crowd know he was just like them: angry.

"If we were doing what Pennsylvania was doing," he asked the crowd, referring to oil and gas exploration, "you know how many jobs would be here, upstate?"

The crowd applauded approvingly. Pennsylvania, a state more relaxed with regulations and only a few miles away, is natural competition here. Unencumbered by the "liberal Democratic policies" of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the downstate progressives he represents, Pennsylvanians are free to frack—a process Cuomo has banned statewide—and therefore free to grow and prosper. And Binghamton, the capital of the New York region known as the Southern Tier, is at the center of that divide.

Fox News anchor Sean Hannity moderates a discussion with US Senator Ted Cruz in Binghamton, New York, on April 15, 2016. Photo by Jason Bergman

"Unfortunately, New York Democratic politicians have prohibited developing the resources [the state] is blessed to have," Cruz told the crowd, once he'd taken the stage. "And we have a situation where the state of Pennsylvania, not too far away, thousands upon thousands are getting high-paying jobs, are seeing their property values go up, and are able to provide for their families."

As the presidential candidates traverse New York in the days leading up to Tuesday's primary, the issue has been one of the underlying fault lines dividing the state's electorate. And it underscores the deep gaps among voters across the country, between liberal, urban elites, and the more rural, blue-collar areas that have been forgotten and screwed by politics-as-usual. Here in the Southern Tier, the Great Recession never really ended—in fact, it's been going on for 30-plus years. In Binghamton, you see it in the abandoned factories, and in the people that crowd the street corners, looking for change, and opiates, and work.

"When a recession comes to Broome County," Bob Carangelo, a 57-year-old Cruz supporter told me outside Friday's event, "we're the last ones to get out of it."

In the 2016 presidential election, the economic landscape has bred an interest—and often a fervent enthusiasm—for candidates outside of the Political Establishment. It explains why thousands of people lined up to see Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speak in Binghamton last week. It also explains why New York's 22nd congressional district, which includes Binghamton, showed 48 percent for Donald Trump, according to data compiled for the New York Times; VICE photographer Simone Lueck, who ventured there last month, calls the district "Trump Country."

It also explains why Cruz, who has spent most of the last few weeks relentlessly bashing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, got a standing applause when he took the stage Friday, and why his campaign has spent thousands of dollars to run television ads in the Southern Tier in the advance of New York's primary.

The crowd for Cruz in Binghamton, New York, last week. Photo by Jason Bergman

In more fringe circles in the area, voters have called for New York to divide into two autonomous regions, with the Southern Tier breaking off into a new state called New Amsterdam. But while the idea isn't exactly popular—Bob Carangelo's father, also named Bob, told me "those people are chasing a dream"—it's a visceral example of a more widespread feeling that people in New York live in two different states. Candidates who resonate with this upstate audience have been able to tap into that white, working-class angst that is so prevalent here, assailing trade deals and job-outsourcing, and promising that Washington, or Albany, will no longer ignore their economic and social fears.

In 2016, several candidates have managed to tap into these feelings. "We have Cruz people, we have Bernie people, we have Trump people," said John Bergener, chair of the Divide NYS caucus, one of the upstate secessionist groups. But "come to think of it," he added, "there are no Clinton people."

Clinton's failure to connect here is notable—and a relatively recent development in her years in New York politics. During her 2000 race for the state's open US Senate seat, Clinton beat her opponent by 10 percentage points in part by flipping the state's white, working-class vote from red to blue. She managed a similar feat against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, when she dominated upstate voters in New York's primary.

But in 2016, although Clinton leads New York Democratic polls by a wide margin, she has reportedly struggled to maintain the support she once had upstate, in part because she faces an opponent, Sanders, who has made trade policy a major talking point of his campaign.

Some of the animosity toward Clinton seems to stem from a dislike of Cuomo, a staunch backer of the former New York senator's White House campaign. In the minds of many of the voters I spoke to in Binghamton this weekend, Cuomo and Clinton are interchangeable, representing the same type of backroom politics and compromises that have continued to hurt Binghamton.

Jocelyn Thornton, a resident of Binghamton, New York, says she's sympathetic to Trump's message. Photo by Jason Bergman

Instead, it is Trump—the billionaire real estate mogul from Manhattan—who has generated enthusiasm upstate. It's a relationship he's been cultivating for several years. "Obviously we know our country isn't doing well, but our state likewise," Trump said at a rally near Albany in 2014, organized to protest new gun control measures that had been pushed through by Cuomo at the time. "Our state is doing very, very poorly. We're creating jobs right now all over the world, and I'd like to be focused on New York, and even in the United States."

Today, Trump's campaign has brought on several upstate elected officials and politicians to represent his New York campaign, including Republican Congressman Tom Reed, a campaign co-chair whose district includes parts of the the Southern Tier and who has expressed sympathy with the partition movement.

"I know Trump is angry, outspoken, and not politically correct," said Jocelyn Thornton, a hydraulic fracturing consultant who used to work on economic development for the city of Binghamton. "But he's hitting on what people are so angry about. And here, that's jobs. I love that he says he'd call the [General Motors] CEO and tell him to bring their jobs back. That's what we need."

"This city in the 80s was amazing," Thornton reminisced. "We had young people working here, not Manhattan, and spinoffs from the defense industry, and manufacturing." Today, Thornton said, the city relies on the local university for economic growth, but most students leave once their studies are over. As Thornton and I talked, we were interrupted twice: First, by a man who complained he couldn't find a job with his degree in social work degree; then later by a man who asked if I would consider relocating my company to Binghamton.

"Lower overhead costs!" he said, grinning. "But seriously," he added, before walking away. "There's nothing going on here. It's dead."

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Photographer Jason Bergman is on Instagram.