Tensions are high in Britain’s Parliament, as political leaders try to hash out a deal on Brexit. But there’s another separatist movement brewing — right here in New York state.
When tourists arrive in New York’s state capitol, some might be expecting skyscrapers and flashy billboards. But life here is a little different. Country music plays at the bus station, hotel doors welcome guests inside with decals that read “howdy y’all.” The population of Albany would fit inside its more crowded urban cousin, New York City, more than 80 times.
As Albany’s residents know well, Manhattan is only three hours away, but it feels like part of a different state entirely. And if a new bill in the state assembly passes, it might as well be. Which is why some upstate politicians are pushing hard for it.
“It’s been talked about,” says Assembly member David DiPietro of East Aurora. “No one’s ever had the guts to actually put it into a bill and say you know what? This is a law, let’s actually move it.”
DiPietro’ bill is the first to propose splitting the state into three independent regions. The five boroughs would keep the name “New York,” downstate suburbs and Long Island would be called “Montauk.” Upstate, where DiPietro lives, would be called “New Amsterdam.”
The federal government would still count it all as one state, but each region would get its own governor, legislature, and court system. DiPietro thinks this will solve a problem he’s had for years — one that came up again in state budget talks last month.
“New York City is now dominating every piece of legislation, resolution, motion and law that comes on the assembly and the senate floor.”
The complaint is a persistent one here. While downstate has enjoyed new jobs and grown its economy, Upstate’s lawmakers say they aren’t sharing in the spoils. They say big-city policies threaten jobs in Upstate communities, which are smaller. One example: the newly-approved state budget authorizes Governor Andrew Cuomo to close up to three state prisons, but in northern towns like Watertown, Cape Vincent and Ogdensburg, prisons are some of the biggest employers. DiPietro thinks Upstaters would be better off with more independence.
“The jobs will fly in here. We will no longer be the laughing stock of the country. We will have economic boon like there is in the best parts of this country.”
The State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute disagrees. It says the upstate economy depends on tax revenue from its downstate neighbors. (Rockefeller Report on revenue and spending in different regions of the state here)
Either way, the bill has almost no chance of passing. But that doesn’t stop DiPietro and others from romanticizing the idea of leaving New York City behind. Earlier this session, in a different effort, Assemblyman Stephen Hawley proposed putting state secession to a public vote. And members of community groups such as "Divide New York" and "Unshackle Upstate" have been dreaming about it for years.
University of Tennessee professor Glenn Reynolds has studied what happens when states try to split up.
“There’s a tide in the affairs of men, as Julius Caesar says, and right now, worldwide, the tide seems to sort of be favoring breakups.”
Reynolds says that over the past few years, separation movements have been gaining steam. In the UK, there’s Brexit. In Spain, the Catalonia region voted to leave two years ago, and is still fighting to make that happen. And here in the U.S., California’s independence movement has gotten so big it has a nickname: Calexit.
“There are a number of efforts to escape what people see as sort of distant and unsympathetic government,” says Reynolds.
But here in New York, the separation movement is coming from the government. Or, more specifically, politicians. For Upstate lawmakers, it can be a powerful political tool. New York State Business Council executive Ken Pokalsky sees why.
“Part of the equation is it sells politically. I say let’s split upstate and downstate, you get people’s attention. I think everybody, including the most ardent supporters, understand it’s not going to happen.”
Governor Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment. For now, as long as New York State stays intact, Pokalsky says downstate lawmakers should pay attention to upstate needs. Unlike Brexit advocates who want to leave the EU, Upstaters likely don’t want to secede. They just want send a message — they’re New Yorkers too.