This week, a couple of upstate politicians from rural districts introduced legislation to give people living in rural areas more power in New York State’s government. Their plan is to redraw State Senate districts to match existing county lines. It’s being pitched and covered as a plan to “boost upstate new york political clout,” but that plan would also take political power away from cities like Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany. It’s difficult to hold both of those facts in your head at the same time—you have to pretend that those cities aren’t part of Upstate. But those cities are part of Upstate, and they’re better off with the way New York elects its State Senators now.
The argument for giving Upstate more control by changing State Senate elections goes something like this: Upstate is Republican and Downstate is Democratic. The Republican-controlled State Senate was Upstate’s voice in Albany, and with Republicans out of power, Upstate has lost its voice:
“When Democrats gained majority control of the 63-seat New York Senate in November, only three members of the party represented Upstate New York. The other 24 senators north of Westchester County are Republicans.”
That analysis ignores why three upstate senate districts sent Democrats to Albany. It wasn’t some statistical anomaly. The three upstate Democratic state senators are from Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany—three of Upstate’s four big cities (Rochester lost its representation in the State Senate to gerrymandering).
Now that Democrats are in control of the New York State Senate, those upstate cities haven’t lost their voice—they’ve gained it. It used to be that rural upstate Republicans negotiated deals with downstate Democrats that left out Upstate’s cities—new spending on MTA and rural upstate roads and bridges, but not upstate transit authorities, that kind of thing.
With Democrats in charge of state government, senators from upstate cities are finally a part of the majority, and they’re in a position to advocate for Upstate’s urban communities. All three of those upstate Democrats are committee chairs. Tim Kennedy (D-Buffalo) chairs the State Senate’s Transportation Committee, meaning that Centro, NFTA, CDTA, and RTS finally have a shot at equitable funding this budget season.
This plan to elect State Senators by county would take power away from upstate cities in two ways. First, it would give the 80,317 residents of rural Cattaraugus County just as much say in the State Senate as the 465,398 residents of urbanized Onondaga County, or the 2,648,771 residents of Kings County (Brooklyn)—making rural votes more valuable than city ones. Second, and more importantly, this partisan power-grab would marginalize upstate cities by relegating their representatives in the State Senate to the minority and making New York State government less responsive to their concerns.
Upstate’s cities vote for Democrats. They do it mayoral races, gubernatorial races, assembly races, senate races, congressional races, and presidential races. In that way, upstate cities aren’t very different from downstate cities like New Rochelle, Yonkers, or New York City. That makes sense when Democratic candidates support policies that address city residents’ concerns while Republican candidates more often focus on rural issues.
When you try to conflate ‘Upstate’ with ‘Rural Republican’ and ‘Downstate’ with ‘City Democrat,’ you miss that. ‘Upstate’ isn’t out of power because Democrats control Albany—it’s just the sparsely populated rural parts of the State whose representatives are in the minority. Upstate’s cities are finally in power. It’s a Country/City issue, not an Upstate/Downstate issue. Anybody who says otherwise is ignoring Upstate’s cities.