During the past 50 plus years, there has been a political tug-of-war between upstate and downstate interests. The competition between the regions is historic and every so often it erupts because of some major issue. But while the two sides are often jockeying for power, a new political force has emerged, namely, the suburbs. Because the regions of Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk have over 5 million residents, they have become a force to be reckoned with.
The emergence of the suburbs as a power started when the suburban Republicans controlled nine seats in the state Senate. For four-plus years, the “Long Island Nine” had enormous influence in Albany. They were able to produce record amounts of school aid and stopped the Senate from passing legislation that gave the city too much power. Once the local Republicans lost their clout in 2018, the city legislators advanced their own agenda and ignored the suburbs completely.
When Gov. Kathy Hochul announced her executive budget in January, she proposed a major housing initiative, which would override local zoning. When it comes to home rule, there is no place in the state that gets more sensitive than the suburbs. Within minutes of the announcement of her housing plan, the Long Island Democrats told the governor that they would not let it happen.
Shortly thereafter, the Democrats in the three suburban counties announced their joint opposition. In the next four months, the suburban Democratic delegation also came out against an increase in the MTA payroll tax. Knowing that the bail reform issue did a great deal of political damage to suburban Democrats, the newly empowered group announced that they would support the governor’s proposal to give judges more discretion in setting bail.
Up to this year, the New York City Democrats wielded most of the power in Albany and didn’t give much respect to the out-of-city legislators. But it didn’t take a meeting with Albert Einstein for the city Democrats to realize that last year’s loss of legislative seats could lead to more losses in the future and maybe the majority. There is a handful of city members who have no regard for suburban issues and one city Assembly member even threatened a hunger strike in opposition to any bail reform. But the suburban Democrats prevailed and stopped a whole bunch of progressive programs from passing and got their way on bail return and taxes.
The success of the suburban Democrats is no accident. The votes of suburban residents all over the country have become a key to Democratic victories in places like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona. At least five United State senators owe their victory to a strong turnout that favored the Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has budgeted $45 million to challenge the four local Republican Congress members, because their four votes could shift the balance of power in the House back to the Democrats.
Can the suburban Democrats continue to wield power in the years to come? The answer is yes. Many fresh campaign dollars have been flowing into the Democratic legislative committees and it is anticipated that more will come. City Democrats will continue to propose millionaire’s taxes and other regressive ideas and the votes of the suburban Democrats are needed to stop these crazy ideas from becoming law. Taxes on billionaires is a good idea but other city legislator tax ideas hit suburban residents very hard.
The idea that suburban Democrats have any power is very much a surprise. Even though the upstate delegations are mostly Republican, the Legislature has been aware of the fact that the upstate is in serious financial trouble and can’t afford to be saddled with any tough laws or ideas. When a new minimum wage law was proposed, provision was made for a delay in the effective date of the law for upstate businesses.
What makes politics so interesting is that no one can predict who the next power brokers will be. But for now, the players are the three regions and nothing is going to change that equation very soon.