on April 27, 2013 - 7:50 PM
, updated April 30, 2013 at 11:52 AM
PRATTSVILLE – The people in this Catskills Mountain community, devastated by Hurricane Irene in August 2011, are still awaiting fulfillment of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s promise to rebuild this town “better than before.”
“Does this look better to you?" asked one resident, who declined to give his name and was far more anxious to get back to his lawn mowing than to talk to a reporter.
He nodded to the nearby main street that, 20 months after the flood, has considerable blight from abandoned and damaged homes, and debris, like the several tractor-trailers that were carried down a stream and still sit sideways in backyards. One sits next to Town Hall.
Cuomo blames his falling poll numbers among upstate voters on the gun control law he quickly pushed through the Legislature in January, but the tiny town of Prattsville can serve as a reminder to any politician that popularity can be fleeting.
The governor is correct that the gun law did not sit well with many upstate voters. But deeper, more structural problems are at play in his numbers, and the reasons spread across upstate’s regions.
In the Southern Tier, Cuomo’s delay in making a decision on whether to permit hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is making him unpopular with landowners and business interests who want jobs, and with some environmentalists who believe he will approve what they believe is a dangerous drilling technique.
Across the Thruway, in communities like Utica, Syracuse and Rochester, it’s the economy and jobs.
And in Buffalo and Western New York, it is all of that plus the continued exodus of people as well as skepticism about Cuomo’s Billion for Buffalo promise.
While these concerns are taking root throughout upstate, much of the governor’s focus this year has been on a left-leaning agenda of social issues such as gun control, relaxed marijuana laws, abortion rights and a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system.
“If the reality of what he says he’s committed to do for upstate was in effect, people would be maybe more tolerant of some of the more liberal side of the agenda because there was real progress on the other issues,” said Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
Cuomo administration officials strongly objected to the premise that the governor’s drop in upstate polls has anything to do with issues beyond gun control. And the notion that he is focusing on left-leaning issues is driven by the media, they insist.
The Cuomo officials noted all polls showed a similar finding: His upstate numbers began going down in January after the gun bill’s passage.
“It’s all guns,” a Cuomo official said.
But the poll numbers aren’t good, and if they are not repaired, could undermine a key hope by Cuomo advisors: that next year he will top his 61 percent election victory level from 2010 with the help of upstate Republicans and independents. That, the theory goes, will better position him to run for president in 2016.
If that is to happen, Cuomo has some upstaters to persuade. Consider:
• A Siena College poll last week found that 52 percent of upstate registered voters prefer someone else run next year, compared with the 42 percent who want Cuomo. In December, 34 percent said they wanted someone else, and 57 percent wanted Cuomo.
• A Marist College poll with NBC New York and the Wall Street Journal last week found that 50 percent of upstaters believe the economy has stayed the same since Cuomo became governor, while 31 percent said it has worsened.
• A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 50 percent of upstaters oppose the gun measure and 48 percent back it. But the poll also found 67 percent of upstaters say New York is headed in the wrong direction, up 20 points from just seven months ago.
• The region’s unemployment numbers still exceed the national rate. And upstate consumers don’t feel positive. A new Siena College survey showed a 65.8 percent consumer confidence level among upstate residents, compared with 80.7 percent in the New York City area. That is down from 68.9 percent for upstaters in January 2011 when Cuomo took office.
Still, the Cuomo administration noted Marist poll results that 54 percent of statewide voters approve of the way he is governing and that 46 percent of non-enrolled voters give him good grades, about the same as two months ago. In addition, 66 percent of Democrats approve of his job as governor.
One state lawmaker in a Republican region said constituents rarely had anything bad to say about Cuomo the first couple years.
They forgave him on the gay marriage issue, said the lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the gun control law unleashed negative feelings about Cuomo at every constituent event the lawmaker is attending these days.
And the complaints center around a feeling that Cuomo needs to return to what he said would be his administration’s focus: jobs, jobs, jobs.
Democratic Party leaders, though, say New York State is feeling the nation’s slow recovery, that Cuomo can’t undo decades of decline upstate, and that he’s proven an upstate commitment with rhetorical and funding attention, including in the new budget, and policies like a property tax cap.
“No, no, not at all,” Assemblyman Keith Wright, a Manhattan Democrat and Cuomo’s other hand-selected party co-chairman, said when asked if he is concerned about Cuomo’s upstate poll declines. “Listen, this governor has worked very, very hard for people upstate and downstate. I’m the state party chair, so I don’t want his numbers to go down. But no, there’s no concern.”
Wright said the upstate numbers could be based on any number of factors.
“But quite frankly, it’s probably a natural evolution. You go up, you go down,” he said.
Economy of upstate
Not so, according to upstate Democrats and Republicans.
In Central New York, it didn’t help that one of the chief critics of the governor during the spring budget season was Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who is also Cuomo’s handpicked co-chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. For Central New Yorkers, Cuomo’s numbers can be tied mostly to the economy, other state and local officials say.
“It’s the underlying frustration across all of upstate, because there’s still a great need and it requires additional attention and resources beyond programs like [Cuomo’s] regional economic councils. They want to see a dramatic turnaround, a Marshall plan for upstate,” said Sen. Joseph Griffo, a Central New York Republican whose district includes Utica, which a new survey showed has the state’s lowest consumer confidence.
And in Western New York, neighbors still see neighbors moving and parents still see children leave for other states in search of jobs. The governor’s vow to spend $1 billion on job creation efforts in the Buffalo area was widely hailed when proposed in January 2012.
But this past January, in his State of the State address, he said the money would be spent over 10 years, not the five his administration previously touted. He later said the money could come faster, but the episode left residents recalling bold yet unfulfilled promises of past governors.
In defense of his economic record, Cuomo noted the work he has done for Western New York, especially in trying to help the economic recovery and job creation.
“We have made great progress in Buffalo,” the governor said in an interview. “We’re working very hard at it, and we have a long way to go. And, we’re also working against a national economic tide that hasn’t always been going in the right direction.”
Additionally, Cuomo cited his work this year to keep the Buffalo Bills from moving and making a down payment on the Buffalo Billion dollar promise.
“There’s a new energy, and it’s only been two years. So, I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made,” Cuomo said. “It’s been a long time coming, and we have a long way to go.”
As for the economy, they point to the recent Marist poll that found 74 percent said Cuomo inherited a bad economy.
Money spent on ads
Still, it hasn’t helped that Cuomo’s economic development agency has been using taxpayer money to finance a television ad campaign touting a new economic vibrancy since Cuomo took office.
“Taxpayers and employers are losing patience with state government, and as the leader of the state, Governor Cuomo is taking the hit. People are frustrated with what they feel is a lack of real economic progress across the upstate region. Ad campaigns that tout a business-friendly New York have fallen on deaf ears because upstate New Yorkers know the reality burdensome regulations and high taxes continue to plague our chance for an economic comeback,” said Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a business group.
Administration officials, though, note that the overall upstate unemployment levels have fallen since January 2011.
While many Republicans don’t see a path to defeat Cuomo next year, state Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox believes Cuomo’s declining upstate numbers will help lure some candidates to the race and will also assist Republicans in congressional and state legislative races. For Cox, the gun law started the Cuomo slide upstate, but he believes it awakened a deeper frustration among upstaters over the economy and other issues, from fracking to worsening fiscal problems for cities and schools.
“When people understand that you’re not working exclusively for them and you’re not focusing on them, that’s when you drop in the polls,” Cox said.
Back in Prattsville, the Irene-flooded town struggling to rebuild, Supervisor Kory O’Hara says Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, has done much for his town, whose hamlet lost more than 10 percent of its population since the storm. He said the state has given the town about $2 million in aid.
“If people do have qualms about Cuomo nowadays,” O’Hara said, “It’s more about the gun control law than hurricane recovery.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement about the governor’s poll numbers in Central New York to Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner.