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State politicians try to bridge upstate-downstate divide at NY State Fair

Ellen Abbott
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (left) enjoying a sausage sandwich with other Assembly members at the New York State Fair.

Politicians are a familiar sight at the New York State Fair. But it’s mostly central New York or statewide representatives that show up -- usually for an event, or the traditional eating of a hot sausage sandwich. But this year, the state’s new speaker decided to bring a downstate delegation to take in the fair.

They traveled mostly in a pack, more than a dozen members of the New York State Assembly led by speaker Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, who’s only had the job since February.

"Just thought it would be a good way for members to get together. Some of us hadn’t seen each other since the end of session. To come and see the fair, support the fair,” said Heastie.

And even though it was mostly upstate members, some downstaters who had never ventured to the fair before, tagged along -- like Democrat Assemblymember Michael DenDekker from Queens.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Assemblyman Michael DenDekker (D-Queens) has a sausage sandwich at the state fair.

"The speaker invited many of the members up to try and build more upstate-downstate relationships,” said DenDekker.

The visit followed a series of meetings Heastie has had upstate this summer, meant to mend what he sees as a mythical upstate-downstate divide.

"I really think people use that really for political reasons, and campaigns, particularly if it’s an upstate race, it’s okay to demonize another part of the state,” said Heastie.

But in reality, in the rough and tumble world of Albany politics, most of the power is centered in New York City. The goveronr, the Assembly speaker, and the leader of the state Senate, are all from the New York metro area.  They determine the state’s political agenda, sometimes leaving upstate lawmakers feeling powerless.  

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Assemblymen Al Stirpe and Bill Magnarelli, both Democrats from the Syracuse area, walk the state fair with Heastie (middle).

So whether this symbolic gesture at the fair changes any of that is unclear. But at least on this day at the fair, lawmakers from all over visited exhibits, posed for pictures, ate, and hit the midway, led by Syracuse-area Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli, who had an agenda of his own.

"You know I’m going to say they have to have a sausage sandwich. But aside from that, I think everything they see here is kind of eye opening to them, and they’re having a good time, which is exactly what I wanted to see," said Magnarelli, a Democrat.

New York State’s new Speaker of the Assembly has spent the summer touring the state, to get a feel for issues facing upstate New Yorkers.   And now, Carl Heastie of the Bronx, has added the State Fair to that list.  He brought up a delegation of Assembly members, including some downstate politicians, to the Fair last week, continuing his effort to try and bridge one of the oldest paradigms of Albany politics, the Upstate-downstate divide.

Local politicians say they’ve never seen this many downstate members come to the fair. Heastie became speaker in February in the wake of a scandal that forced longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver to step down from that post.  

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.