As was diaried here yesterday, New York’s governor George Pataki has got it in his head to run for president, which would be a laughing matter if only there wasn’t going to be real suffering behind it.  While his veto of New York’s bipartisanly supported emergency contraception bill has been widely reported, less widely reported are the other forms of pain he is moving to inflict on New York’s weaker, more struggling cities and constituencies, all in the name of burnishing his neocon credentials.

The most reprehensible aspect?  Since he’s had no luck in making a dent in downstate interests — supported as they are by a powerful Democratic machine — his target s are upstate cities like Syracuse which have elected Republican moderates to the state legislature for decades.  First order of business:  vetoing $600 million in badly needed renovations to inner-city Syracuse schools, making shit up as he goes.

 Why is this important?  What does it mean in the big picture?

Those who were caught up in last year’s presidential election may not have noticed that New York State had one of its most convulsive political years in recent memory in 2004.  Because New York State is an Electoral College backwater, a huge political news vacuum existed, which the state media — having no other way to join in the 2004 election excitement — enthusiastically filled with railings against Albany sleaze and corruption, prompted by a now-notorious NYU study called the Brennan Center Report.

Egged on by blanket media coverage and by the superheated political climate raging outside their borders, New York State citizens found some semblance of a political voice for the first time in decades and had nearly every legislator in the state Senate and Assembly running for their lives.  Four Senators, and a couple of Assemblymen, lost their jobs, which in New York politics, is gigantic news.

This law-and-order climate made it even more favorable for Eliot Spitzer to throw his hat into the ring for governor, and it’s not just Spitzer’s popularity that has finally scared Pataki off.  Pataki was definitely damaged by all the media attention and scandal and newfound citizen interest in state governance, and along with fear of Spitzer’s massive fundraising advantage and the perennially sluggish upstate economy, his approval ratings went down so low that he finally decided to get out while the getting was good.

But every action has an equal and opposite reaction…

New York is now stuck with a lame-duck governor who is clearly going to do everything he can to throw whatever he can of New York over the side in his disgusting attempts to ingratiate himself with national Republicans.  It is very important to note that it is not the people in New York City he is going to be hurting.  With an entrenched and powerful Democratic majority in the Assembly, Pataki knows that he can most easily score points by screwing over his own — the moderate Republican constituencies of upstate New York, and the struggling, vulnerable cities they surround.

So, this is good for the Democrats, right?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

The politics of New York State as a whole is poorly grasped by the progressive blogosphere at large, and I’m writing about this unfolding situation to try and educate those who only pay attention to Ohio and Florida.  If you care about the health and strength of the Democratic Party everywhere, but think that New York is “safe” for Democrats, think again.  If you really want to think about actual people suffering and not just about the “trickle-down effect” of electoral votes or Congressional seats, think again.

There is a huge opportunity for Democrats to finally claim upstate New York as their own, and in so doing, refocus and hone a message for the entire national Democratic Party.  But whether they will take that opportunity is very questionable.  The great regional divide between upstate and downstate has less to do with ideology than it does with good old fashioned pork and patronage politics.   The Democratic Party of New York is among the richest, most powerful and — paradoxically — laziest in the nation.  A gentlemen’s agreement has always existed:  Democrats get downstate, Republicans get upstate, and they don’t bother each other.  This is a state where the state Democratic Party and the state GOP have fundraisers in adjoining hotel suites on the same night – so lobbyists don’t have that far to walk.

Politically, upstate New York is a peaceful haven compared to the rest of the country.  Very little political polarization exists, at least not in the way that most people around the country understand it today.  The upstate blogosphere is bipartisan, with Democrats and Republicans and Greens conversing (and disagreeing) with each other civilly and often.  The stasis is downstate too.  Since New York State operates as a comfortable but gently declining machine finely honed through the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s easy for Manhattan Democrats to be fat and insular and to buy into the perception that “upstate conservatives are out to get us.”  Never mind that throughout upstate New York, a Republican candidate still would not dare to thump a Bible in public, and most of them don’t do it privately either.  This is still the land of the Rockefeller Republican, a place where the fastest growing third party is not the Conservative or Right to Life party, but the Independence Party which is a mishmash of Perotistas, mild libertarians, and small-business, good-government types.

Will downstate Democrats take advantage of the growing political vacuum as Pataki embarks on his reign of terror against the weaker, more struggling parts of the state?  Will they take back the state Senate and give a Democratic governor (Spitzer?) the power and leeway he needs to shape a new national Democratic agenda?  Even now, the wolves are circling Dave Valesky in the 49th district.  (Valesky, if you recall, was one of the celebrated four senatorial victories for the Democrats in the 2004 election.)

Or will the status quo reign?

We know Eliot Spitzer will speak for the whole state – he has to – but Spitzer cannot do it all himself, despite the way the progressive blogosphere lionizes him as the next FDR.  Inside New York’s heartland, the assessment of Spitzer is a little more sanguine and reserved: read it as a warm reception, but deeply wary of what will happen to him in Albany.  What New Yorkers really want is a transformative governorship from Eliot Spitzer: Democrats want him to help save the country, but Democrats and Republicans want him to save the state first.

In my view it is up to the New York City’s Democrats to step up to the plate and stop pretending that they’re national players when they’re really not — they’re really just a convenient ATM for the national party, and don’t want to come up and go to bat for the people of their own fantastically diverse state.  New York State is America in microcosm.  There is almost no issue of national import that a New York governor and legislature doesn’t have to deal with every day: the rich, the poor, the middle class, the farmers, the cities, the Native Americans, the immigrants, the international border issues, domestic security, the environment, globalization and its impact, jobs… you name it, New York has it.  And in 2006, it will be the most wide open ideological playing field for a new Democratic Party there will be.

 Interestingly, if the 52 counties of upstate New York were a separate state, it would be the 13th most populous in the nation, one of the top five most highly educated, would have one of the greatest percentages of designated wilderness area of any state, and many other interesting and contradictory superlatives.  Socially and historically, it has one foot in New England, the other in the Midwest, with the wide range of traditions and opinions you might expect.

Upstate New York is at a crossroads; everyone has known it for quite some time. It has been blessedly free (relatively) of the craziness and polarization of the nation at large, being an Electoral College backwater, but all that could change soon as Pataki starts his reign of terror against the weak — we have 17 months left of this guy.
He has nothing to lose and (in his perception) everything to gain by screwing New York’s less powerful people over – especially the kids in our cities.  Will downstate Democrats notice?  Or will they think upstate somehow “deserves” it, and expect voters to come running to the Democratic Party?

I don’t know what that’s going to lead to.  The tinder in upstate is still dry from the mini grass fire of 2004.  The reform movement was a curiosity in Manhattan, but it was front page news up here.  Upstate’s electorate is slow to anger, but when people up here get angry, they get really angry.

If the Democrats do not step in during this period, someone else will.

This is just a friendly warning to my party.  I have always said that you need a proving ground for a new vision for the Democratic Party, and a champion.  We have that champion in Spitzer, and we have the proving ground, but will there be an army on the move?  I just don’t know.

Prove me wrong.

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