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As Brexit Tensions Boil Over Abroad, a Separatist Movement Brews at Home

HOST INTRO: Yet another Brexit deadline was missed today. British lawmakers had to negotiate a plan to leave the European Union. But with tensions high and no resolution in sight, they got a two-week extension to decide for good whether the UK wants in or out. Meanwhile, as Ali Swenson reports, there’s another separatist movement brewing — right here in New York state.

((SOUND: Taking steps in the Albany Bus Terminal.

SWENSON 1: When you arrive at the Albany Bus Terminal, it’s immediately clear: You’re not in Manhattan anymore.

((SOUND: Door opening. Country music playing outside the terminal.

SWENSON 2: At this one-room transit station, country music blasts over the speakers. Down the street, hotel doors welcome guests inside with decals that read “howdy y’all.” Albany’s population would fit inside New York City more than 80 times.

Albany is just three hours north of Manhattan, but it feels like part of a different state entirely. And if a new bill in the state assembly passes, it might as well be.


It’s been talked about. No one’s ever had the guts to actually put it into a bill and say you know what? This is a law, let’s actually move it. (0:06)

SWENSON 3: Assemblyman David DiPietro is from upstate New York. His bill is the first to propose splitting the state into three independent regions. The five boroughs would keep the name “New York,” downstate suburbs and Long Island would be called “Montauk.” Upstate, where DiPietro lives, would be called “New Amsterdam.”

The federal government would still count it all as one state, but each region would get its own governor, legislature, and court system. DiPietro thinks this will solve a problem he’s been having in state budget talks.


New York City is now dominating every piece of legislation, resolution, motion and law that comes on the assembly and the senate floor. (0:07)

SWENSON 4: The complaint is a persistent one upstate. While downstate has enjoyed new jobs and grown its economy, upstate lawmakers say they aren’t sharing in the spoils. They say big-city policies threaten jobs in their smaller communities. One example: Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to close state prisons, but in some northern districts, they’re the biggest employers. DiPietro thinks upstate would be better off with more independence.


The jobs will fly in here. We will no longer be the laughing stock of the country. We will have economic boon like there is in the best parts of this country. (0:10)

SWENSON 5: The nonprofit Fiscal Policy Institute disagrees. It says the upstate economy depends on tax revenue from its downstate neighbors.

Either way, the bill has almost no chance of passing. But that doesn’t stop DiPietro and others from romanticizing the idea of leaving New York City behind. Last month, in a different effort, Assemblyman Stephen Hawley proposed putting state secession to a public vote. And members of community groups like “Divide New York” and “Unshackle Upstate” have been dreaming about it for years. University of Tennessee professor Glenn Reynolds has studied what happens when states try to split up.


There’s a tide in the affairs of men, as Julius Caesar says, and right now, worldwide, the tide seems to sort of be favoring breakups. (0:08)

SWENSON 6: Reynolds says that over the past few years, separation movements have been gaining steam. In the UK, there’s Brexit. In Spain, the Catalonia region voted to leave two years ago, and is still fighting to make that happen. And here in the U.S., California’s independence movement has gotten so big it has a nickname: Calexit.


There are a number of efforts to escape what people see as sort of distant and unsympathetic government. (0:08)

SWENSON 7: But here in New York, the separation movement is coming from the government. Or, more specifically, politicians. For upstate lawmakers, it can be a powerful political tool. New York State Business Council executive Ken Pokalsky:


Part of the equation is it sells politically. I say let’s split upstate and downstate, you get people’s attention. I think everybody, including the most ardent supporters, understand it’s not going to happen. (0:12)

SWENSON 8: Governor Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment. For now, as long as New York state stays intact, Pokalsky says downstate lawmakers should pay attention to upstate needs. Unlike Brexit advocates who want to leave the EU, upstaters don’t want to secede. They just want send a message — they’re New Yorkers too.

Ali Swenson, Columbia Radio News.


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