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Top lawmakers compete over who does more for upstate

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces on Thursday that two corporations to open new technology facilities in the Mohawk Valley.

There’s been an unusual focus on upstate New York among top state politicians from the downstate area in recent weeks.  

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a speech in Utica Thursday, says downstate lawmakers -- who numerically dominate  the legislature -- have been unified in seeking aid and programs for New York City and Long Island. But he says upstate lawmakers are more balkanized and have been largely unsuccessful.

“There is no place called upstate,” said Cuomo, who said New Yorkers tend to identify with the city they leave nearest, like Syracuse or Buffalo or Rochester.

“No one says, ‘I’m from upstate,’” the governor said. “There was no unity among the upstate delegation.”

Cuomo, who is originally from Queens, says now there is more of a central focus on the upstate economy, and he says he’s the one responsible.  

“It has changed dramatically, because we’ve insisted that it change dramatically,” Cuomo said.  

The governor says he’s “put his thumb on the scale” to make sure upstate gets its fair share.

The governor was in Utica to announce an expansion of nanotech facilities in the region through the state university, which incudes expansion of a General Electric research facility. He says it could result in as many as 2,500 new jobs.

Cuomo’s comments come as legislative leaders are taking an interest in upstate.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has been touring regions north of Westchester all summer, with stops in Syracuse, Binghamton and Buffalo. His latest visit was a three-day survey of the Capital Region, that included nearly two dozen stops.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News File Photo
WRVO News File Photo
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie met with Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner in his first stop on his upstate tour this summer.

Heastie says he’s seen each region's positive attributes, but also the troubled areas -- where he says the problems of poverty, lack of jobs and crumbling infrastructure are not that different from some of the parts of his home, the Bronx.  

Heastie says while the majority of the Democrats who rule the Assembly are from downstate, that won’t drive the decisions made in the Democratic conference about schools, spending priorities and economic policy.

“Upstate is not going to be forsaken,” Heastie said.

Senate Leader John Flanagan, who is from Long Island, was in Cooperstown recently. Republicans who rule the state Senate have often argued that they need to stay in power because if Democrats control the Senate, upstate needs will be neglected. 

Cuomo, speaking to reporters in Utica, says if the GOP’s claims are true, then, he asks, why has upstate been “shortchanged” for decades?

“If they did, then upstate New York would have gotten much more over the past years,” Cuomo said. “They could have remedied it.”

A state Senate GOP spokesman said Senate Republicans have always been a “strong and consistent voice for upstate taxpayers and their families”.

Heastie, in an editorial board meeting with the Albany Times Union, one of the stops on his upstate tour, says he thinks the whole upstate-downstate divide is too often amplified for “political posturing."

Cuomo says he’s far from through with his focus on the upstate economy. He cites as an example a $1.5 billion economic development competition that he convinced the legislature to approve, even though some lawmakers object that only three of the state’s seven regions will get to share the money.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.