By FARAZ TOOR
Last month, New York City voters declared that Bill de Blasio and his progressive agenda were what they wanted in a mayor for the next four years. Meanwhile, Staten Islanders declared that they didn’t care what the rest of the city thought.
Although de Blasio won 73.3 percent of the vote for mayor, easily defeating Republican candidate Joe Lhota, on Staten Island, Lhota won the majority. It suggests again the notion that Staten Islanders feel isolated from the rest of the city, even if they don’t want to secede from New York City anymore.
While it was expected that Lhota would win Staten Island because the borough has repeatedly voted for Republicans for mayor, Lhota’s strength of victory was surprising, as he won the borough by eight percentage points. The entire South Shore of the borough went to Lhota, and almost every voting district in the mid-island voted for him. Even a chunk of the North Shore gave the Republican candidate its votes. Lhota won every Staten Island neighborhood except for five small areas in the North Shore, all but one by double digits.
De Blasio “never really concentrated on Staten Island,” said Richard Flanagan, chairman of the political science department at the College of Staten Island.
A New York Times interactive map shows that even though de Blasio won among white voters citywide, he lost heavily in that demographic on Staten Island. Lhota lost among homeowners, citywide, by more than 20 percentage points, but he won handily among Staten Island homeowners.
Staten Islanders say their vote wasn’t only a matter of supporting conservative policies.
“There’s no special affinity between him and the borough,” Flanagan said about de Blasio. Flanagan also said that de Blasio’s liberal stances didn’t “play very well” on Staten Island, but he said that de Blasio’s lack of attention to Staten Island was more of a factor in the voting.
Lhota needed to win very big on Staten Island, and made the borough a centerpiece of both his primary and general election campaigns. When asked during a debate about the happiest moment of their lives outside family events, de Blasio said it was his graduation from NYU; Lhota said it was cutting the ribbon at the ceremony that closed Fresh Kills Landfill when he served as deputy mayor under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Much like Giuliani, Mayor Michael Bloomberg also built strong support in Staten Island.
“Staten Island was always more important to Bloomberg and Giuliani because they depended on the votes,” Flanagan said.
“His policies were very wishy-washy,” Scott Plissner, a 53-year-old Staten Island Republican, said of de Blasio’s campaign platform. “I think he’s going to be a problem.”
Staten Island’s dissatisfaction with Democratic candidates stretches much further back than this year’s mayoral election. Consistently over the last 13 years, Staten Islanders voted for Republicans in almost every one of their elections. Staten Island was the only borough that elected a Republican borough president, and it did so in six previous elections. And in the City Council races, the Island had two of the three Republican Council members elected in the entire city. v
Staten Island differs from the other boroughs, more like a town than a city. Its residents depend on the car for transportation, much more so than people in other parts of the city. Staten Island has fewer transit options; its public transportation system is mostly the Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses. The only train line, the Staten Island Railway, only covers one side of the Island. The ferry provides a link to Manhattan.
The borough was even isolated when Hurricane Sandy hit; Borough President James Molinaro charged that the American Red Cross had failed to respond as quickly as it should have and urged residents to stop donating to it.
In the mid-1990s, Staten Islanders felt so isolated from city government that they voted to secede from the Big Apple and become a separate city, with their own mayor and City Council.
“Their biggest concern was, at the time, that basically Staten Island was being ignored in reference to almost everything that had to do with the state,” Gretchen Finke Cassidy, a 55-year-old Staten Island resident, said of the seccessionists. “Other boroughs got money for improvements – road improvements and improvements for social services – while Staten Island got nothing.”
The process gained headway after the state Legislature granted the right of self-determination in 1989. Legislative leaders in Albany thought the initiative would die quietly, but the State Senate, the Assembly, and then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, who stayed neutral on the issue, failed to stifle further legislation. In 1990, residents of Staten Island opted to secede, and on November 2, 1993, in a second referendum, Staten Island residents voted 2-to-1 to approve the charter.
The Fresh Kills Landfill was a major source of concern. “When people’s voices weren’t heard about the dump, that fueled a lot of the secessionist [feelings]. You could smell the dump from where you got out of your home,” Cassidy said, noting it was near the Staten Island Mall. “And when you got over to the Mall, the smell of the dump was so bad it would knock you over.”
In 1995, the secession bill passed the Republican-controlled State Senate, but met its end in the State Assembly, which was controlled by New York City Democrats. According to the Staten Island Advance, Speaker Sheldon Silver, from Manhattan, said that the bill must be accompanied by a “home-rule” message from the City Council, which wouldn’t give it.
The movement lost a great deal of its might after that, and no successful push has made headway since. In 2008, State Sen. Andrew Lanza introduced new legislation for secession, but nothing has happened with that movement. Even two years after the secession movement failed in the State Assembly in 1995, polls showed that Staten Islanders no longer wanted to secede from the city. Today, the calls for secession are almost non-existent; some of this may be attributed to the city’s shutting down the Fresh Kills Landfill and making the Staten Island Ferry free, two of the borough’s major demands in the mid-1990s.
Scott Plissner, a 53-year-old Staten Island Republican, said that financially, Staten Island probably couldn’t have handled being on its own. But the underlying sentiments that gave rise to the secession movement haven’t died.
“His policies were very wishy-washy,” Plissner said of de Blasio. “I think he’s going to be a problem.”
Said Plissner: “Year-by-year it’s getting worse. You hear it every year: Staten Island, the Forgotten Borough.”