Governor Cuomo’s Progressive Credentials and Upstate’s Forgotten Cities

As New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo positions himself for a 2020 presidential run, both mainstream and left-leaning news media have published a bevy of opinion pieces about his troubled relationship with New York State progressives. These pieces argue that the Governor’s headline progressive policies are just for show–that he only pushes things like marriage equality once they’re politically expedient, or that that he designs policies like the Excelsior Scholarship to get national attention without really helping the poor.

The common diagnosis is that the Governor is building a sort of radical-centrist resume. He balances policies important to voters in urban liberal New York City against those important in rural conservative Upstate New York. The idea is that his progressive policies will appeal to voters on the urbanized coasts while his work in Upstate New York will appeal to those in the post-industrial Midwest.

The obvious tension is that Upstate New York is not purely conservative nor is it purely rural. New York City makes it easy to forget the size of Upstate’s cities, but Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo each have more people than the biggest city in ten other states. Rochester and Buffalo are each larger than the biggest city in seventeen other states. These are urban places that reliably elect democrats. They have more in common with the coastal metropolises than they do with the rural parts of America’s interior. When Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie visited Upstate for the first time in 2015, he marveled at our cows, but he also said “particularly in the urban center, the problems that are facing Syracuse are the problems that I face back home in the Bronx when we talk about education, when we talk about poverty.”

The Governor has a lousy record on these issues in these urban centers. In 2014, he mused about expanding the Buffalo Billion program to other upstate cities, but when Mayor Stephanie Miner proposed to spend the money on water infrastructure instead of tourist attractions the Governor responded by saying “fix your own pipes.”

In the Governor’s 2015 State of the State address, he tried to say that urban schools don’t have a money problem by pointing out that the Buffalo School District receives a lot of state aid, choosing to ignore the fact that Buffalo is so poor that state aid doesn’t close the gap in total spending per student between BSD and richer suburban districts.

In 2015 when Centro was going to cut its Sunday and late-night service to fill a budget gap, the Governor’s initial reaction was to say “I didn’t know anything about it. The state is funding it at the same amount we funded it last year. Somebody must have cut it. Not me,” as if flat funding isn’t the same as a cut when expenses are rising, and as if public transportation hasn’t been underfunded for decades.

In 2016, Preet Bharara revealed that the Governor’s tourism-based economic development plans for upstate cities have less to do with replacing the jobs that left with Carrier, Bethlehem Steel and Kodak, and more to do with enriching campaign donors like Cor.

Through 2017, the Governor has pushed city and county governments to consolidate. He’s pitched the initiative as a way to reduce property taxes, but it would also dilute city residents’ representation in local government and transfer power away from communities of color.

Governor Cuomo treats upstate cities with a mixture of condescension and contempt. The region is important to his political narrative so he showers it with money, but all those subsidies go towards banner projects that do not address the underlying issues that erode long-term city residents’ quality of life. Ask for an aerial gondola or performing arts venue, and he’s all in. Point out failing bus service or inadequate water infrastructure, and he’s either ignorant or uninterested. That’s the real hole in the Governor’s progressive resume.