New Political Geography

Andrew Cuomo Ignores Rural New York

The governor’s autobiography might well worry his rural constituents, since like a lot of leaders in state politics, he pretty much ignores anyone who’s not a city dweller.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

New York State includes more than just New York City. A lot more than just New York City. Of the approximately 55,000 square miles of land in New York State, less than 500 of them are in New York City. Of the state’s approximately 20 million people, fewer than half reside in New York City.

From reading New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s much-hyped new book, All Things Are Possible, though, one would be forgiven for thinking that New York State goes from Manhattan in the south to the Bronx in the north. And this points to a larger problem with our states right now: the most powerful political leaders in state government are more and more encouraged to flatter their urban areas and ignore everyone else.

Cuomo has been the governor of our third-largest state since 2011. He was just re-elected to his second term by a comfortable margin. This book—part autobiography, part campaign manifesto—was meant to announce his presence on the national stage as we approach the presidential campaign of 2016.

However broad his ambitions are, Cuomo’s book is painfully local. His professional roots are in New York City. Born in Queens in 1957, his earliest professional experiences were supporting his father Mario’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 1977 and his successful campaign for governor in 1982.

Cuomo made his own name by working on housing policy—but particularly urban housing policy. He founded Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP), and served as chairman of the New York City Homeless Commission. Housing problems exist outside of New York City, but his stories in his book about fixing housing problems are about urban homelessness in the larger New York City area.

Cuomo made his national debut through his service as assistant secretary and then secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during the Clinton administration. His stories about his tenure in Washington hype his success in fixing housing problems in “inner cities.”

Cuomo ran for governor in 2002, but pulled out before he was to be soundly defeated in the Democratic primary by Carl McCall. Cuomo was finally elected governor in 2010. His book does highlight his admirable efforts to revitalize Buffalo, New York State’s second-largest city. Buffalo is about as upstate as his book goes. Albany is not a place filled with people, but merely a place where state government operates and Cuomo can work to pass laws. Other New York places—from Plattsburgh in the North Country to Rochester in the middle west of the state—are not once mentioned in his 528-page book.

Cuomo’s book is not just about a New York City career, but a New York City person. He identifies as “brusque” like other New York City residents. He tells us he does not like RVs. He tells us that “[m]id-December in New York City is magical.” He meets his current companion, Sandra Lee, at a party in the Hamptons.

Cuomo’s book suggests he does not care about the rest of New York State, and the rest of New York State does not seem to care for him. In the Democratic primary in September, Zephyr Teachout beat Cuomo in about two dozen counties, and he lost most of these counties to his Republican opponent Rob Astorino on Tuesday.

The excessive urbanism of Cuomo’s book is symptomatic of a larger problem in American politics right now. Most American law is state law, and the most important state political figure in every state is the governor. Every state in the United States is becoming more urbanized. More than 70 percent of Americans live in areas of more than 50,000 people.

While cities have exploded, other areas have shrunk. For the first time in American history, rural areas are shrinking. States that were already urban—like California—have become even more so. States that we think of as rural—like Iowa—have become more and more urban. For instance, the population of Iowa’s largest city, Des Moines, has grown more than 15 percent since 2000.

While people are moving, state borders stay the same. There are no states of cities and states of rural areas. Instead, almost every state has featured a redistribution of political power from the rural to the urban.

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At the state level, this means that governors wishing to be elected must turn their attention downtown. This is where the population is, and so this where the votes are located. But it is more than that. The biggest donors are located in a state’s cities. Cuomo, for instance, focuses his energies in his book and in the governor’s office on New York City and Buffalo. The biggest media outlets are located in a state’s cities. An endorsement by The New York Times reaches outside of New York City, while endorsements by newspapers in the North Country do not reach New York City.

This is just the start of the problem. Many—if not most—governors are aspiring national political figures. Four of our past six presidents had served previously as governors. When Hillary Clinton exits the national political stage, Cuomo could try to replace her as the standard-bearer for the national Democratic Party. As he told The New York Times Magazine this month before his book was released “[w]hen you lie in bed and you think of the worst thing that could happen to you, short of death or serious health issues, for me… the nightmare [includes] political loss.”

For these nationally ambitious state political figures, the reasons to focus on the cities of their states are even more significant—and there are even more reasons to focus on the largest cities of the state, not just any city in the state. Major cities are usually more connected to national networks of power. Buffalo has been growing again, but it does not have 370,000 millionaires like New York City has. These millionaires can fund a Cuomo for President campaign. An endorsement from The Buffalo News is nice in New York State, but not important in Nebraska. An endorsement from The New York Times, on the other hand, is important everywhere in the United States.

One of the precious and underappreciated jewels of America has always been its geographical diversity. We are and always have been a country of city and county, downtowns and small towns. But as Americans change where they live, our politics must change how it works in response. Andrew Cuomo’s book shows us the problems of this new political geography, and the importance of fixing it.

David Fontana is Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School.