Staten Island keeps thinking of seceding

Staten Island lawmakers are once again showing interest in seceding from the city.
Staten Island lawmakers are once again showing interest in seceding from the city.
Jayne Lipkovich/Shutterstock
Staten Island lawmakers are once again showing interest in seceding from the city.

Staten Island keeps thinking of seceding

But here’s why it’s unlikely that’ll ever happen.
December 9, 2019

Staten Island, the frequently lampooned and largely misunderstood New York City borough is once again voicing an interest in seceding from the city.

On Saturday, the New York Post reported that a few Staten Island lawmakers have expressed interest in running away from home and going upstate – figuratively speaking – to escape the city’s high taxes and progressive politics. And their plan to make this a reality hinges upon a Republican-backed proposal, aptly titled Divide NY.

The legislation sponsored by Assemblyman David DiPietro, whose district includes suburbs to Buffalo’s south and southeast, would divide New York into three separate self-governing regions: New York City, “Montauk” (which would contain Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Rockland counties) and “New Amsterdam” which would encompass all of upstate New York – and now, possibly, Staten Island. The state would remain intact for federal purposes, however. Call it secession-lite. 

Assemblyman Michael Reilly, who represents the South Shore of Staten Island, is hoping to make an amendment to DiPietro’s plan that would allow the borough to annex itself to upstate and leave New York City behind. “In my personal view, I’m leaning toward going up to New Amsterdam,” Reilly told the Post. “I don’t think we would align with the Montauk region.” 

While it would seemingly make a lot more sense for Staten Island to align itself with the more suburban “Montauk” region, Reilly told the Staten Island Advance that the “government model from upstate would better align with the values of Staten Island,” presumably meaning a more conservative approach. 

If Republican Staten Islanders are looking to escape from subsidizing less affluent neighbors, it’s a curious choice to join upstate, which is far poorer than downstate. Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, whose district also includes parts of Staten Island, has also expressed interest in secession, though she’s not keen on the borough becoming a part of the upstate region, for precisely that reason – although she was sure to assert that it’s the fault of Democrats from downstate. “They don’t have the economy to support themselves … because of policies put in place by the Democratic-controlled Legislature,” she told the Post.

This comes just a month after New York City Council members Joe Borelli and Steven Matteo announced their plan to introduce a bill that would study the feasibility of the island seceding from the rest of the city. “If the city wants to continue going in a radical progressive direction, please just leave us behind!” Borelli told the Post. “The city is fighting a war on the cars we need to drive and loathe police officers — many (of whom) live here. Why wouldn’t Staten Island want to secede?”

This talk of secession may seem like a fairly new and reactive move on the part of the island’s politicians – most of whom are Republican – but talk of Staten Island seceding has been ongoing for decades.

In 1987, state Sen. John J. Marchi began leading a campaign to have Staten Island secede from the rest of the city – his zest for the movement eventually earned him the moniker “the Father of Secession.” Efforts to secede ramped up in 1989, following the creation of a new City Charter, which eradicated the Board of Estimate that gave the island disproportionate representation. The board allowed the Staten Island borough president, who oversaw about 400,000 residents, the same voting power as the Brooklyn borough president, who oversaw more than 2 million residents. In the new charter, the island’s representation was apportioned based on population size, allowing Staten Island to have three members on the City Council. This led borough residents to question what kind of voice they would have in the city government moving forward.

In 1989, Gov. Mario Cuomo signed state legislation that would allow Staten Island residents to vote on a referendum to study and initiate the island’s possible secession – despite opposition from then-Mayor Edward Koch and Mayor-elect David Dinkins. In 1990, 83% of Staten Islanders voted in favor of conducting a secession study and three years later, 65% of the borough’s residents voted to secede from the city. The referendum for the island’s secession was included on the city ballot in 1993, which some credit with assisting in Rudolph Giuliani’s narrow victory. The Cuomo-backed legislation, however, included an amendment that required the state Legislature to make the final decision on the matter. The legislation was then vetoed by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who said the bill needed a “home rule” from the city, to gain its approval.

In 2009 and 2011, state Sen. Andrew Lanza attempted to push secession legislation, but he did not receive any support from his fellow lawmakers. 

As previous failed secession attempts have shown, approval is required from both the city and the state and clearing both hurdles is unlikely. The city might be especially inclined to reject secession, since Staten Island has the highest median income of any borough and City Hall might fear losing the strong middle-class tax base. Plus, secession would create complicated technical problems, as anyone following Brexit or the various subnational secession movements in Europe right now can imagine. Staten Island would have to take its share of the city’s capital debt, create its own county jail and figure out how it would split liabilities for city pensioners, among several other financial and service-related issues – much like a divorce. 

Instead of looking to dissolve its relationship with the rest of the city, due to feelings of neglect and underappreciation, Staten Island might just want to try the silent treatment.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is City & State's web reporter and social media editor.
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