For decades, David DiPietro has watched his community in western New York state decline while Democrats from the Big Apple run the show, but when they took over both houses of the legislature in January, he said, “Enough.”
The Republican assemblyman went out on a limb last month by introducing a bill that would divide New York into three autonomous regions, each controlled by its own governors and legislatures. He argues that what works for New York City is dragging the rest of the state into economic oblivion.
“Western New York, where I’m from, has the most population loss with 18- to 35-year-olds. Our kids are leaving the state in droves, the most anywhere in the country,” Mr. DiPietro said. “There’s no jobs. And New York City controls this.”
This isn’t secession. New York would still be one state but divided into three segments: New York City and its boroughs; the Montauk region, comprising the downstate counties of Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland and Westchester; and the rest of the state, dubbed “New Amsterdam.”
A denizen of East Aurora who runs his family’s dry cleaning business, Mr. DiPietro said the Empire State has been under the thumb of New York City lawmakers for years, but the situation went from bad to worse in November when Republicans lost the state Senate after having controlled it for most of the past 50 years.
The result has been a cavalcade of liberal legislation to tighten gun control laws, expand late-term abortion access and make illegal immigrants eligible for college financial aid, topped off last month by the projection from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, of a $2.3 billion revenue shortfall.
New York City Democrats now hold the majority of legislative seats in both houses, meaning that “New York City controls everything,” Mr. DiPietro said.
Calls to divvy up the state of 20 million have come and gone for years, but it’s not every day that experienced legislators get involved.
Mr. DiPietro is no political novice. He was mayor of East Aurora for six years before his election to the state Assembly in 2012.
He is also not the only Republican lawmaker seeking a breakup. Last month, state Sen. Daphne Jordan introduced legislation to form a working group to examine the economic impact of carving New York into two states.
She said the “deepening divide — cultural, economic and political — between upstate and downstate has grown more pronounced every year.”
Cuomo senior adviser Rich Azzopardi dismissed the latest proposals.
“It’s the sort of divisive, unserious and sad pandering that was easy pickings for [Comedy Central’s] ‘The Daily Show,’” Mr. Azzopardi, referring to a 2009 episode mocking the Long Island secession movement, said in an email.
Under Mr. DiPietro’s bill, named AO5498, the New Amsterdam region would include the vast majority of New York’s territory but exclude most of its wealthy residents, who pay most of the state’s income taxes.
Opponents of the idea to split the state argue that the upstate region would suffer financially, given that New York City and its surrounding counties generate most of the state’s income tax revenue, but Mr. DiPietro disagrees.
“Without New York City, the rest of this state will take off like a rocket,” he said. “We’ll control our own resources, we’ll control the unfunded mandates that come from Albany on education, welfare reform, taxation, everything’s that geared toward New York City.”
One example: the $5 billion proposal to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge on the Hudson River. “Five billion could reinvent this whole state’s infrastructure, but that’s what they need for one bridge,” he said.
Also rankling upstaters was the now-defunct Amazon deal, which he said would have come at a cost to them, “and yet there wouldn’t be one job created in the rest of the state,” Mr. DiPietro said.
Then there was Mr. Cuomo’s 2014 ban on hydraulic fracturing, which nixed any thought of developing the rich Marcellus Shale sitting below the state’s struggling Southern Tier, prompting calls from locals to secede to Pennsylvania.
“If we could do fracking on the Southern Tier of this state, which is literally Appalachia. It’s very poor, you could see real jobs and real growth overnight,” Mr. DiPietro said. “And again, that’s a disconnect between our governor and the rest of the state. That part of the state says, ‘We’re all for it,’ yet the governor makes those decisions, and it’s not right.”
In his corner is John Bergener, chairman of the Divide NYS Caucus, which developed the plan for three autonomous regions.
“It’s finally getting traction,” Mr. Bergener said.
The chances of the bill passing the Democrat-controlled Legislature are remote, but Mr. Bergener said the fortunes could change if Republicans capture the Assembly and the Senate in the next election, which may not be out of the question.
He cited the state’s budget woes; the hotly debated gun control and abortion laws, and the decision by state legislators in December to give themselves a 63 percent raise over three years.
“I think the Democrats would approve it if we switched back to Republican,” Mr. Bergener said. “It’s possible. They’ve burned a bridge, and they’ve gotten the old-time Democrats leaving the party.”
States have struggled with rural unrest since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 Reynolds v. Sims decision, which ruled that state legislative chambers must be apportioned by population, thus diluting the influence of counties heavy on land and light on people.
Mr. DiPietro said he believes the concept for autonomous regions could catch on elsewhere. He already had discussions from interested Illinois residents about splitting from Chicago.
“I’m sending this out as a bill — not a proposal, not a resolution,” he said. “I want people to get on it. My goal is to take this nationwide because a lot of other states are dealing with these problems where the big city dominates the rest of the state, which wants nothing to do with them.”
For those who say the idea sounds crazy, Mr. DiPietro said it would be crazy to keep the dysfunctional status quo.
“We’re always playing ‘The Hunger Games’ to get a couple of crumbs instead of ‘Let us have our own autonomy and make our own decisions,’ ” he said. “I think the rest of the counties will turn red overnight, so I don’t think there’s anything crazy about it. I think it’s a logical step.”