The recent proposal put forward by Robert Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, that New York legislators should create a bipartisan Upstate Caucus would be a substantive step forward. However, pairing his proposal with the creation of an Upstate Priorities political party that would cross-endorse Democrats or Republicans who truly fight for legislation and reforms needed to grow the upstate economy would significantly enhance the potential impact of his proposal.
First, irrespective of whether an upstate party is created, many legislators are likely to join something called an “Upstate Caucus” as a way of signaling their loyalty to upstate voters and their seeming willingness to engage in bipartisan cooperation. But once those legislators are confronted with the difficult choice of picking between the priorities of the Upstate Caucus and the demands of their party bosses, the lack of an upstate party would mean that legislators would have little to fear from ignoring the agenda of the Upstate Caucus.
Specifically, in the fog of Albany machinations, it would be too easy for Republicans and Democrats to simply point fingers and blame each other to excuse their own reversals or inaction on positions that are relevant to upstate. But if prioritizing their party bosses over the explicit proposals of the Upstate Caucus would result in public rebukes from a well-functioning Upstate Priorities party, and their opponents getting the cross-endorsement of that party in the next election, legislators would be much more likely to tread carefully.
Second, if only an Upstate Caucus exists (with no corresponding political party), then presumably the priorities of that caucus would be defined in large measure by negotiations between the Republicans and Democrats who are members of that caucus. This would leave the caucus platform vulnerable to being drafted too broadly or too vaguely in order to accommodate outside agendas, making it more difficult to hold legislators truly accountable. Certainly some organized groups, like Unshackle Upstate, would seek to publicly clarify what the priorities of the Upstate Caucus should be, but ultimately even prominent outside groups would be limited in what they could pressure the members of the Upstate Caucus to do. Instead, if there is an Upstate Priorities party, its goals will be clearly defined, prioritized, publicized and pushed by leaders of that party, who will be individuals whose loyalties are not split between the needs of upstate and the demands of their major party backers.
Finally, conditions are ripe for a pragmatic, focused, cross-endorsing third party that would have considerable electoral value to politicians. Hyperpartisanship has increased in recent years, with fewer voters expressing a willingness to vote for a candidate on a party line they generally oppose. Further, most prominent third parties in New York consistently cross-endorse candidates from only one major party (e.g., Conservative Party and the Working Families Party), making their party lines less desirable as a means of receiving potential crossover votes. Because of its more mainstream and geographically focused nature, an Upstate Priorities party would offer an appealing party line and a potentially influential endorsement, incentivizing elected officials to pursue its much-needed agenda.
As Mr. Duffy pointed out in his proposal, upstate and downstate clearly face different challenges that often require different solutions. And partisan polarization in Albany and nationally has only served to make geographically oriented bipartisanship more difficult. Yet politics is ultimately about the aggregation of votes and the coordination of power. By creating a political party focused on upstate priorities, we can abate some of the disadvantageous effects of politics and demographics that have hampered our upstate economy and develop a long-term mechanism to make sure that political promises turn into meaningful reforms.
Alex Zapesochny is president and CEO of iCardiac Technologies Inc.
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