Back in the year 2000, when the New York Democratic Party held its state convention at the Rye Town Hilton [now the Hilton Westchester], I noticed a certain politician huddling with several aides and allies. Eavesdropping, I distinctly heard the words: “those upstate crackers.” The tone was disrespectful and, clearly, no elected official would ever utter the word ”cracker” in public, since it is pejorative slang for poor white people who live in depressed rural areas.
This little vignette would not shock David DiPietro, a Republican state assemblyman from the town of East Aurora, in Erie County, a place so far away from here, it’s practically in Canada. DiPietro has long been convinced that the denizens of the north are disparaged by arrogant cosmopolites — and indeed, he has his own choice words to describe the power brokers of New York City who, he says, are willfully ignorant about the culture and issues facing Upstaters.
Fracking, gun rights, abortion… these are just a few of the higher-profile issues that make up the great divide in the state’s contentious politics. But Upstaters, who generally lean Republican and conservative, have little say in these matters because the concentration of legislative power is in New York City and its outlying suburban counties, where Democrats rule.
“The New York City people do not understand the way of life up here,” DiPietro told me. “Main Street in East Aurora is totally different from Fifth Avenue in New York City, totally different.”
People are leaving his neck of the woods in droves, DiPietro says. They can’t find jobs and can’t afford the state’s punishing array of taxes and fees. Promises of economic revitalization from Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a chief villain in DiPietro’s dystopian narrative — aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. When I brought up Cuomo’s signature Buffalo Billions program, DiPietro laughed bitterly. “We call it the ‘Buffalo Thousands.’”
“No state has hemorrhaged like this since the Dust Bowl,” he said, warming up to a hyperbolic rant. “It’s crazy. I call it the Cuomo Diaspora. It’s New York’s version of the Potato Famine. We’re the Okies of this generation.”
That’s why he wants out of the Empire State. He wants a New York-style Brexit.
Under Assembly Bill A05498, DiPietro’s idea is to divide the state into three autonomous regions. The five boroughs of New York, which comprise 43% of the state’s population, would be one region, retaining the name New York. Westchester, Rockland, Suffolk, and Nassau Counties would be consolidated under the regional name Montauk, and the vast remaining territory — 53 counties — would be called New Amsterdam.
The devil is in the details, but each region would have its own legislature, governor, and bureaucracy. (Just think — three departments of motor vehicles!) DiPietro said the regional representatives would theoretically hold annual statewide meetings to hash out federal issues.
This idea has been ridiculed by Democrats, who say it serves no purpose other than to further polarize New Yorkers. Worse, it will hurt upstate because of its reliance on downstate tax dollars. Not that secession hasn’t been tried before — it has, many times, in many ways.
For instance, a decade ago, Long Island tried to secede. Before that, in 1993, the citizens of Staten Island voted to form their own city, only to be dissuaded by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, who mollified the rebels by closing a garbage landfill and keeping free-of-charge rides on the ferry.
In 1969, novelist Norman Mailer famously ran for mayor, calling for New York City to become the 51st state. His running mate, newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, said New York would keep the name; the rest of the state would be called Buffalo.
But DiPietro is dead serious. Plus, he’s not alone. State Sen. Daphne Jordan, a Republican from Halfmoon in Saratoga County, submitted a bill this year that calls for a study to look into the economic impact of dividing the state in two. Cuomo’s acerbic spokesman, Richard Azzopardi, dismissed her proposal as the “Godzilla of pandering.”
Naturally, DiPietro has a website, www.splitthestate.com, where you can delve further into his mission and buy T-shirts at $23.95 a pop. He has an uphill battle.
I have to admit I’m intrigued by the idea of rebranding Westchester County after the seaside resort of Long Island’s Montauk. I might get behind this movement if I can rent my house in Yonkers at Montauk summer prices.
DiPietro thought that was funny. “Phil,” he said, “you’re already seeing the advantage!”
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.