To our presidential candidates:
Hello from upstate New York. In this cold April, you’re crisscrossing our cities and counties. That will only accelerate during the next five or six days as five of you – Republicans Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump and Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders – try to lock up a big stack of New York delegates.
For once, in the national picture, upstate matters. Somewhere, campaign advisers are rifling through every digital newspaper archive they can find, and the themes that are emerging are the themes you would expect: There is a sudden awareness of the ongoing struggles of the region, an attempt to channel all the heartbreak about long and widespread economic erosion.
Our suspicion is built on what we’ve seen all too often, in different ways: The primary will come and go and the problems that took such urgent focus will be left behind once you’re gone, like scraps of paper that blow around a parking lot after a rally.
So might we ask that all of you step back for a moment, just a moment, to consider another possibility?
Could it be that even in this year of raw American anger, all the pain upstate is less about fury than it is about love?
If you think about it that way, as love turned upside down, then maybe this will happen:
Maybe, when one of you becomes president, you will remember.
The image to take with you is not the rage or impatience pouring from some rally, the rage that you find all too often – the emblem of our time – in every community, in every state. The image to remember is the mother standing on a front porch in the early morning, the mother whose family has been here for generations.
She raises her hand as a son or daughter, car packed for a new life somewhere else, pulls away.
Think of her. As you drive the Thruway, as you fly from city to city for quick news conferences, look up from your phone and instead look out the window: Upstate is beautiful. Spend your life here, and you know. It is a place of waterfalls and forests, a place with a sky that offers – every day – grand theater on the horizon. It is a place of such regional centers as Buffalo and Rochester and Syracuse, cities where some of the greatest architects and artists in our history practiced (or practice) their trade.
It is a place where activists for abolition, for women’s rights, helped forge the conscience of what their nation would become. It is a place that always sends legions of young men and women to wage our wars. The sacrifice of those who don’t return cascades through generations, all the potential of what might have been.
For what do they still offer such a sacrifice?
For the farms on blue hills in counties like Chautauqua or Tioga. For small homes purchased with the savings from long years in a forge or a warehouse or a stamping plant. For the city neighborhoods that once seemed like welcoming beacons for immigrants from abroad or those fleeing the cruel Jim Crow laws of legal segregation in the South. This was a place of industry, of opportunity, of hope.
Drive Route 5. Drive Route 20. A half-century ago, it hardly seemed that so many of these small communities would become places of tall grass and used-to-be, places where white-haired retirees whose children have moved to the far sides of the nation drive to church on Sunday mornings and wonder about the next time they will get a chance to hold their grandchildren.
Too often now, the cores of our big upstate cities become crucibles where toddlers who should know nothing but hope instead face harsh obstacles against earning even a high school degree, where there is an unthinkably strong chance for those children to wind up on the streets, in prison ….
Remember that Upstate, one of cascading tragedy. Yet there is also a parallel region of gracious and affordable homes, of great universities, of easy commutes to work or the store. It is still a place where many kids can grow up sledding beneath moonlit winter skies. It is a place that can be as good to build a life as anywhere in the nation.
All we want is that same chance for everyone.
Candidates, please, really see: There is so much potential here. If you boat, ski, run, hunt or fish: paradise. There is nothing more beautiful than a snowy upstate Christmas, and there is no taste like the autumn taste of the first apple off a tree, and there is no feeling quite as euphoric as the day when the maples go to leaf, seemingly as one, in the spring.
Dreams and ugliness, beauty and genius, loss and hope: This is upstate. In some cities, in a few of our downtowns, you feel the growth – the technology, jobs and energy – that speaks to aching visions of a turnaround. But it is still a region, in many areas, where couples sit at kitchen tables and talk of moving south, where young shoulders sag beneath preposterous student debt, where the bloodshed in our cities has become a numbing daily tragedy.
They say this election is about anger. Maybe, in this region, it really begins with love, with torn commitment to the soil where the ones who did so much for us are buried. Think of this, then, if you come here for our vote: Far too many parents or grandparents in this region Skype or email with grown children who felt the need to drive away, trunks of cars packed with suitcases and family photos, gone to Houston, Seattle, Charlotte ….
Toward aspiration. In the end, all we want is that same option here, from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. There ought to be a real choice, bright opportunities for those who want to stay. Remember that once Upstate goes into your rear view mirror. Candidates, as you know too well, you can find anger anywhere. Love and faith, in the end, lead toward greater transformation.
In another year, from the White House, one of you can send some back.