Have you ever met an "apple knocker"? It's a real person, at least it used to be in the minds of many downstate elected officials. In the mid-1960's it was the typical way to describe an upstate member of the state legislature. Apple knockers are rural people, a "hick" or sometimes called a "country cousin."
While upstate New York is far more sophisticated today than the Dutch settlers called apple knockers, there is a continuing divide between upstate and downstate. The successful primary campaign of Republican upstart Carl Paladino is proof that upstate New Yorkers have some strong feelings about their economy and life in general.
Paladino swamped his downstate opponent Rick Lazio and won the opportunity to battle Andrew Cuomo for the right to be New York's next governor because he capitalized on the frustration and fears of upstaters who have long felt that they take a back seat to downstate interests.
In a typical New York State primary, liberal Democrats turn out in large numbers downstate and a handful of conservative Republicans turn out around the state. The Republican primary this year generated a large upstate vote from party regulars who like many others from that region are upset, distressed and feeling pain built up over many years.
The divide between upstate and downstate has been become bigger and bigger over a period of 50+ years. When upstate senators controlled the legislature in the 1950's and 60's, it was a constant battle to get anything meaningful for downstate New York. Industry was booming and cheap hydro power enabled companies like Bethlehem Steel, IBM, Miller Brewing, Kodak and Alcoa to expand and grow.
The decline of the manufacturing industry and the outsourcing of jobs to far off places took its toll on cities like Buffalo and Syracuse, who today have vast stretches of empty stores in their downtown business districts. Declining population has resulted in less political clout in the state legislature and redistricting every ten years reduces the number of elected legislators compared to downstate.
Governors, both Democratic and Republican, have had some successes in Central and Western New York, but no one has come up with a long term fix that will attract new jobs and generate new tax revenues. New York City has had the good fortune to attract new industries but even downstate political leaders have no magic bullet to cure their economic woes.
There have been some signs of hope. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, to his credit, was able to entice Jet Blue Airlines to establish new routes to places like Buffalo and Syracuse, which gives them better access to the outside world. Richard Kessel, who chairs the New York Power Authority, has enticed Yahoo into Western New York and kept Alcoa's 1,000 jobs in the Massena area.
But the gap between upstate and downstate is not just economic. Downstate residents have no idea how much stagnation and economic decline has hit the Upstate regions. Upstate residents think downstate inhabitants are far better off than they are.
The November election will test which candidate, Andrew Cuomo or his challenger Carl Paladino, can successfully tap into the frustrations of all of the state's voters. Upstate and downstate New York are desperately in need of a governor that can bring the two regions closer after so many years of division.