Breakingviews - New York entertains a lesson in secession

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Of the five boroughs that make up New York City, Staten Island was the one that voted most enthusiastically to join back in 1894. Times have changed. Some local politicians now want to carve the island – once home to the world’s biggest landfill, cinematic mafioso Vito Corleone and pop star Christina Aguilera – away from the Big Apple. Their goal is far-fetched, but their efforts hold important lessons for other fragmenting democracies.

A Staten Island Ferry crosses in front of the Statue of Liberty between Manhattan and Staten Island in New York City, New York, U.S. June 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The brains behind what’s predictably dubbed “Stexit,” after Britain’s move to quit the European Union, is Councilman Joe Borelli. In December, he called on the local council to study removing the island from America’s biggest urban hub, to make it a free-standing city under New York State. With a population just shy of 480,000, it would be roughly the same size as Atlanta. He already claims the support of several state senators and assembly members, though the financial and tax implications of going solo are as yet unknown.

Borelli has a simple explanation for why islanders would be better off alone: they’ve been “forgotten.” Many voters in British towns that opted to leave the EU in 2016’s referendum used the same word. And in many ways, it’s true. The borough has meager public transport. Roads are poorly surfaced, and there’s no public hospital. The famous commuter ferry, ridden by the big-haired secretary Melanie Griffith plays in “Working Girl,” remains the only way to get directly to Manhattan. A subway tunnel to Brooklyn was abandoned in the 1920s.

All that’s not new. In fact, Staten Islanders already tried to get away once. A decisive 65% of them voted to secede in 1993, but the bid was blocked by New York’s state assembly, which ruled that such an instruction needed to come from the city’s mayor. That’s likely to be a dealbreaker again. “Hizzoner” Bill de Blasio – who only got a quarter of Staten Islanders to vote for him in 2017 – says the city should stay together. His current term ends in 2022.

One question, then, is why now. Economic conditions don’t explain it. Staten Island’s $79,200 median household income in 2017 was well above the city average; its 12.9% poverty rate is well below. Some 70% of residents are homeowners, and unemployment is, as almost everywhere in America, close to historic lows. Reported crime levels, too, have halved in the past 20 years, in line with similar falls in the Bronx and Manhattan, according to the city’s police department.

In other words, things couldn’t be more different from 1993, when islanders seethed over their giant festering landfill, bewailed the restructuring of the city government that had slashed the borough’s influence, and sported an unemployment rate of nearly 10%. The case for ripping up the status quo is weaker than it has been in decades – a stark contrast to, say, Hong Kong, where economic strains helped turn political gripes into all-out riots.

A more powerful motivator is identity politics. The mostly-white Staten Islanders voted in the majority for Donald Trump, where the other four boroughs backed Democrat Hillary Clinton. Nicole Malliotakis, who represents eastern Staten Islanders in the New York State Assembly, calls her constituents “nuts and bolts people” with a more conservative approach than their neighbors. Yet on issues from minimum wages to gun ownership, where the city’s rules are much tougher than those at state level, they are all shackled together.

“They’re not looking for handouts and free stuff,” Malliotakis explained to Breakingviews. “They want hospitals, an education for their kids, roads without potholes.” Another thing many want is to escape an archaic city property tax system that favors owners of luxury condos over family homes, penalizing Staten Island at the expense of rich Manhattanites. True, splitting off might mean taxes go even higher, but at least what’s levied west of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge would stay there.

One thing that’s certain is that nothing will happen quickly. Brexit has already taken three years and has yet to occur. Prizing Staten Island away could take a decade, Borelli estimates. Much could change in that time. Back in 1993, a change of mayor settled nerves. Rudy Giuliani cut the ferry fare to zero – from 50 cents – and brought projects ranging from a lighthouse museum to a minor league baseball team. Perhaps most importantly, he talked about the “historic lack of fairness” towards the voters who overwhelmingly helped elect him.

Then as now, the final say sits with City Hall. Many islanders think the city will never let its forgotten borough go – though that suggests there may be something to the idea that Staten Island is paying more than its fair dues. It doesn’t help that the city studiously doesn’t say how much each borough gives and gets. It may be that de Blasio, or his successor, can shed some light, and throw some more resources across the harbor.

Unlike 1993, though, it’s not clear there’s much they can do when the root cause is identity more than economics. Staten Island’s differences, and its “forgottenness,” are ages old. Islanders were Republicans long before Trump. Yet differences are becoming more pronounced. Cross-country divisions embodied in a bitterly divided Congress – fuelled by arguments over impeachment and migration, risk turning what were once local quirks into irreconcilable differences. That, more than anything, probably explains the timing.

Meanwhile, the feeling of disenfranchisement is only likely to go one way. Staten Island once had sway over city budgets that was equal with the other boroughs. Now its clout more closely reflects its relatively small population, and its geographical remoteness. “Things will never get better for Staten Island,” Borelli laments. “We’ll never have a bigger say than we do now.” On the latter point he’s right, and Britain’s irascible Brexit voters couldn’t have put it better.


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