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New York's New Power Balance Leaves GOP Leaders Raising The Idea Of Secession

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are sharp political and cultural fractures in America, and they're being felt inside of states. In New York, for example, Democrats now control every branch of state government, and conservative communities in northern New York say they feel ignored and powerless to the point where some have raised the idea of secession - effectively splitting New York state into two. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: At a meeting of gun rights activists in Lowville, a small town in northern New York, the local sheriff, Mike Carpinelli, walks to the front of the crowd. He's a big guy, bald, wearing a black uniform.

MIKE CARPINELLI: I just came back from Albany today, and I want you to know the truth. It's not good. They're against you down there.

MANN: Hundreds of people nod angrily. Carpinelli describes Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Democrats who now control the state legislature this way...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARPINELLI: This tyrant that we have in Albany, and he has so much ridiculous legislation that's being put down upon you. They don't want to listen to upstate New York.

MANN: Conservatives at this meeting are furious about gun control measures, but they also rail against Albany's decision to protect abortion rights. Matthew Meier, a former Army soldier, says laws being passed in Albany threaten his community's way of life.

MATTHEW MEIER: Unfortunately, we're facing a domestic enemy now who seizes to impose on these rights that we were born with as Americans.

MANN: New York is one of the bluest states in the country, but big political and cultural rifts have deepened here for decades. Conservative, mostly white towns upstate tend to be Republican strongholds, while New York City and many of its suburbs are far more racially diverse. People there vote mostly Democratic. After the 2018 election, a tense balance of power between the regions collapsed when Republicans lost control of the state Senate, which they dominated for most of the last century.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREA STEWART-COUSINS: This is incredible.

MANN: Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from downstate, became the new Senate majority leader, the first African American woman to hold that post.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART-COUSINS: I want to thank God, because, frankly, I consider myself being here amazing grace. Amazing grace.

MANN: Stewart-Cousins and fellow Democrats began pushing more progressive legislation, including new gun control measures and a sweeping climate change bill. Complicating this moment is the fact that the single biggest policy flashpoint is criminal justice reform, an issue that's been racially charged in New York for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Leave our bail reform intact. We will not accept rollbacks.

MANN: Democrats have changed the state's bail laws and are diverting far more low-level drug offenders away from prison. At a rally in Albany, some black leaders, including activist DeAnna Hoskins from New York City, framed the conflict with upstate Republicans as a fight for civil rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEANNA HOSKINS: They have levied relentless oppression against black and brown communities. But let's really be honest - they're not really mad about losing their power. They mad because the power has shifted.

(CHEERING)

MANN: The divide isn't only ideological. It's also about money and jobs. For decades, state laws sent tens of thousands of mostly black and Hispanic men from New York City to prisons often located upstate. That boosted the economy in rural prison towns, but now Democrats are closing correctional facilities. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, spoke about the tension during a trip upstate last year.

CARL HEASTIE: You know, representing a district that feeds a population of inmates - we don't want the economy of upstate New York to fail. But we don't want the economy of New York to succeed just by keeping people in prison.

MANN: Crime rates remain low in New York, but Republicans frame this very differently - not as a fight over civil rights but a clash over law and order and public safety. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan spoke at a rally in Albany surrounded by police officers and sheriffs, demanding that bail reform be rolled back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN FLANAGAN: You are less safe today than you were six months ago. You are less safe today than you were a year ago. There are people out on release who never should've been released.

MANN: It's unclear how this political divide gets bridged. Upstate-downstate tension has grown so severe, some prominent Republicans have raised the idea of a kind of divorce dividing New York into two states. That's not likely to happen. Democrats, meanwhile, have promised to keep pushing their progressive agenda.

Brian Mann, NPR News in upstate New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "DOUBLE BIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.

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