A story appeared in Saturday’s Post-Standard about Eliot Spitzer’s adviser, Mike Schell, that everyone ought to go read. Although the story is about Schell’s personal reaction to the scandal, it also sheds light on exactly why Spitzer always appeared to be everywhere in Upstate at once. Schell was instrumental in arranging Spitzer’s schedule and making sure he was not favoring any part of Upstate over another.
This methodical approach helped to invigorate Upstate leaders and citizens, and it would be a loss if it were to stop. Nevertheless, I think realistically we have to be prepared for this approach to be put on hold, and to retrench hopes and plans. During his brief tenure as governor, Spitzer’s engagement with Upstate was broad, though not particularly deep or focused. But something he did manage to do was to impress upon Albany and the Downstate media a sense of Upstate as a real, big place that needed real, big help. Since the days of the siting of the Erie Canal, Upstate communities have done little but indifferently compete with one another. That balkanization was beginning to slowly change under Spitzer, and clearly the work of advisers like Mike Schell was vitally important in fostering that new way of thinking. This culminated in one of the few bright spots of Spitzer’s tenure, the State of the Upstate Address in January.
But even if Gov. Paterson desires to keep Schell on in his former role, chances are not good — at least initially — that Paterson could maintain such a broad approach even if he wanted to. And in his early statements he has taken sincere pains to communicate that he wants to. But it’s far more likely that the new governor’s engagement with Upstate will be more organic in nature, and more tied to squeaky wheels asking for more grease.
Syracuse got a lot of attention during the Spitzer administration. That attention is more likely to be going away, at least for a while. Other things will be eventually happening that will shift the local leadership scene even more. Funding we are used to reading about in the paper, will soon dry up, thanks to economic factors, and federal and now state political factors. (It’s worth noting that Paterson isn’t shy about pointing out that New York City’s economy is going to start sucking now too.) There are no more saviors on the horizon, and we’ve got to rely on people-driven (as opposed to institution-driven) leadership more than ever before.
Buffalo and Rochester are probably going to get more of the new governor’s attention. They’re bigger. That’s just the way it is. What happens in places like Syracuse and Utica is going to require that much more guts and ingenuity. Still, Upstaters who band together and squeak in unison will do well — so the anti-NYRI movement, for example, should not be too badly affected by the change from Spitzer to Paterson alone.
To any of this blog’s readers who identify as Republican or independent: one thing I can say you might be able to look forward to from a Paterson era is related to the simple fact that someone as liberal as Paterson would never have been able to be elected outright. Part of the reason why Albany has become so disgusting is that it’s become a sideshow of two parties that haven’t really stood for anything but pork and corruption, who have little interest in engaging voters on any subject whatsoever, content to get by on questionable back-room deals. While Paterson has a well-known political temperament that stresses consensus-building (something that will disappoint powerful organizations on the left), his ideological stances are probably much less fluid than Spitzer’s. In short, we’re going to have somewhat more tensions between left and right, even if they are more congenially expressed. We’re going to have New York Republicans forced to articulate precisely what they believe, and we’re going to have Democrats forced to do the same. For whatever reason, without the accident of Spitzer’s downfall, such a debate would never have been possible.
Lastly, to those who wonder, as always, “What about Upstate?” I’ll just say: Relative to Lower Manhattan — where powerful corporate interests have made some of the worst decisions about our state and nation’s economy — Harlem is indeed Upstate. All that’s really needed is a governor who has the insight to accurately sense the real picture up here, and the imagination to communicate the parallel to Upstate New Yorkers. If Gov. Paterson can believe it, maybe everyone can believe it.