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Gubernatorial election results magnify New York's urban-rural divide

Keith Fioretti may have spoken for the vast majority of Wyoming County voters a few days ago when he explained his vote in last month’s election for governor.

It wasn’t so much enthusiasm for Republican Marc Molinaro, he said, as his disgust with Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. And he hears it daily from the corrections officers at nearby Attica and Wyoming prisons who drop by the 110-year-old Varysburg Hotel he’s owned since 2002.

“Bar talk is sometimes cheap, but from what I hear, their ‘commander in chief’ seems to be siding with the criminals,” Fioretti said, citing Cuomo's pardon of a cop killer this year in explaining why Wyoming County recorded New York’s strongest Molinaro vote on Nov. 6: 74 percent.

But the sharp rural-urban divide reflected in the election assumes a different tone in Buffalo, a major source of votes flowing into Cuomo’s column.

Attorney John P. Feroleto was thumbing through research books at the downtown library last week when he observed that Cuomo earned the vote of the state’s second biggest city.

“He’s progressive,” said Feroleto, a well known Democrat whose wife is a Supreme Court justice and whose son is a Buffalo Common Council member. “And whether you like him or not, he’s paying attention to Western New York.”

Separated by only about 40 miles, Fioretti and Feroleto represent vastly different poles of the state’s political spectrum. They reflect the sharpest division in recent years of New York’s gubernatorial vote, which in 2018 resulted in Cuomo’s overwhelming victories in New York City and its suburbs along with lesser wins in upstate’s big urban counties.

A review of the numbers tells the story. Cuomo won statewide 58 to 36 percent, with most votes stemming from New York City. He won the Bronx with 90 percent of the vote, Manhattan with 85 percent, Brooklyn with 81 percent and Queens with 78 percent. He also claimed the big upstate counties with approximately 50 percent each in Erie, Monroe, Onondaga and Albany.

Though scoring a sweep of upstate’s big counties, the numbers also reflect a much weaker base than in New York City and its suburbs. In fact, the governor claimed only two other upstate counties – Tompkins and Ulster. And had the election been waged only in the vast stretch of upstate north of Westchester and Rockland counties, Molinaro would have defeated Cuomo by a margin of 1.2 million votes to 1 million votes.

Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, says the numbers prove “there are two New Yorks” divided between “upstate and downstate, urban and rural, rich and poor.”

“That divide is real,” he said.

He noted his $2.4 million campaign treasury (compared to more than $30 million for Cuomo) made it impossible to disseminate his message in the expensive New York City media market, and possible only on a limited basis upstate. He says his opponent “nationalized” the election by linking Republicans like him to President Trump and his unpopularity in New York.

“I believe our message was absolutely empowering for the rural areas and suburbs; the problem was too few people heard it because of the cost,” Molinaro said, noting that turnout increased 50 percent upstate and 90 percent in New York City over 2014 because of motivated Democrats.

“I’ll give the governor credit, he was able to nationalize the election,” Molinaro said. “In New York City, they were hypermotivated and unwilling to consider anyone outside a particular political party.

“Even if we had enough resources we would have been up against a national message, and then people just don’t believe you,” he added, alluding to the fact that, as a Republican, he was linked to Trump even though he has said he didn't vote for the president. “If people don’t believe you even though you’re earnest, you’ve got a problem.”

Democrat Stan Lundine, a veteran of statewide contests in 1986, 1990 and 1994 as Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s running mate, agrees the rural-urban divide that always guided New York politics has grown wider. But he won six congressional elections as a Democrat from 1976 through 1984 in a Republican Southern Tier district.

He recalled a phone call from James A. Farley – the late FDR confidant, secretary of the Democratic State Committee and national Democratic chairman whom he had never met – after winning his 1976 special election to the House of Representatives.

“‘Did you actually win Steuben County?’” Lundine said Farley asked. “ ‘The last Democrat to carry Steuben was FDR in 1932.’

“But if you really pay attention to places like Allegany and Steuben, you can be competitive,” Lundine added.

At one time or another, Lundine won each of the mostly rural counties of his district that were always identified as Republican.

But the urban-rural, upstate-downstate divide widened this year in a way he called “troubling.”

“It’s more clear in the Republican Party because of the Trump influence,” he said. “We’re certainly getting pulled in opposite directions because of the president. And I don’t understand the governor’s lack of appeal upstate – he certainly has paid a lot of attention there.”

All of this stems from an increasing identification of voters with partisan politics, according to Michael Pendleton, chairman of the political science department at SUNY Buffalo State. In the 1980s, he said, political scientists thought the phenomenon of parents transferring political beliefs to their children would weaken as voters identified less and less with a party.

“But in the last 30 years, there seems to be a turnaround,” he said. “A lot of cultural and economic factors are sharpening the difference between the parties.”

Pendleton also said urban and suburban communities have become “much more heterogeneous and multicultural,” while the small towns stymied by less economic opportunity have developed a wariness about cities and their politics.

“People in small towns feel an alienation from the more heterogeneous cities and suburbs,” he said. “You combine that with the double whammy of racial and ethnic division and it leads to more defensiveness and anger.”

The irony lies in the fact that especially in New York State, he said, upstate would face overwhelming pressures without the economic “transfers” stemming from New York City's tax revenues, though that assistance often does not outweigh the cultural divide.

“Issues like guns and political correctness stand in as markers of this divide,” Pendleton added. “It’s ethnic and it’s cultural, but there’s also an economic shift involved.”

Back at the Varysburg Hotel, Fioretti describes it even more plainly by invoking a familiar rural sentiment about New York City.

“How many times have you heard,” he asked, “that we should just chop off that part of the state?”

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