Any way you look at it, it was a banner day for Western New York when we became the site of the first-ever New York State of the State address delivered by a governor west of the Soda-Pop Line. And except for national-level political developments, this has driven local news in the two weeks since. Stories have been coming out with details of the initiatives the Governor calls “Buffalo Billion Squared.” The great Sean Kirst talked with the Governor about his special relationship with Buffalo. And on Monday, the Governor was back in Western New York talking about the prospects for Buffalo Billion Squared in the State Legislature with the Buffalo News editorial board.
But what was it like to be part of this red-letter day in Western New York history? Let me give you a sense.
First, I’ve been an aficionado of State of the State speeches since I heard my first one, delivered by the Governor’s father, Mario Cuomo. The elder Cuomo, whose rhetorical prowess was legendary, always delivered a memorable speech, of a quality commensurate with a State of the Union address. His successor, George Pataki, not so much. More recently, Governor Paterson gave a State of the State speech that had moments so bizarre, I wondered if he was having mental health issues.
The graphics themselves have become iconic and meme-worthy, perhaps because of, rather than despite, being of a deliberately cheesy quality you might expect from sleep-deprived college students during final exam week.
While State of the State speeches by Governor Andrew Cuomo have never achieved the erudition of those of his father, nonetheless they have been very effective communication in their own way. From the first, he substantially transformed the speeches, by holding them outside of legislative chambers and incorporating graphics. The graphics themselves have become iconic and meme-worthy, perhaps because of, rather than despite, being of a deliberately cheesy quality you might expect from sleep-deprived college students during final exam week. Without doubt the image of the Governor as one of “Three Amigos” with Silver and Skelos, shortly before two of the “amigos” were removed from office under indictment, will make its way into future New York State history textbooks.
But it was this Governor’s practice of having his administration’s officials deliver regional versions of the speech tailored to local issues that set the stage for this week’s big event. It was only after recent negotiations for a special session, which was rumored to include a pay increase for lawmakers, broke down, and there were boycott threats against the speech, that Cuomo announced his intention to give the speech away from the capital. Not only that, he would give a series of speeches around the state. Essentially, he — not top officials in his administration — is giving the regional states of the state. Coming on the heels of a year of unpresidented [sic] politics, it doesn’t seem all that earth-shaking.
To get to the speech, I had to cobble together an itinerary involving walking, rail transit, and various shuttles. I made it work, but the schedule vagaries and nearly-made, nearly-missed connections meant a stressful, hour-long trip each way. And a late arrival at the UB Center for the Arts. Outside the doors was a long line of UB students, perhaps attracted by the Governor’s recent announcement of a debt-free SUNY plan, being offered admission. Clearly, organizers were aiming for a big crowd.
And that’s just what I found inside, where I found the coat-check line alone stretched nearly back to the doors. But after I picked up my credentials, I found the line moving along at a good clip. I greeted Sam Hoyt, who was working the crowd. As one of the Governor’s point people in Western New York, it was a big day for him in every way — even, it turned out, his birthday.
By the time I got into the auditorium, seats were getting scarce, but ushers put me in an unclaimed reserved seat close to the front. It was an honor to be in the same row with my former county legislator, Maria Whyte, now Deputy Erie County Executive, and Chief of Staff Jennifer Hibbit.
I was surprised to find the emcee for the event would be Howard Zemsky, Executive Director of Empire State Development, not Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who was also in attendance. But given that we knew much of the speech would be about the second Buffalo Billion, it made sense.
Zemsky was in fine form, with his customary avuncular sense of humor on display.
Zemsky was in fine form, with his customary avuncular sense of humor on display. The Governor played off of it, suggesting that the two of them may have established something of a bromance.
The Governor had the crowd on their feet three times, starting with when he took the stage. I took the opportunity to look around, and discovered a completely packed auditorium.
But not unexpectedly for a speech at one of New York’s largest SUNY campuses, the longest standing ovation came for the debt-free SUNY graduation program. The program would apply to students from families making less than $125,000 annually. Cuomo pointed out that in Western New York, 85% of families would qualify for it.
Other big applause lines greeted the Governor’s backing for local projects, including some in Niagara Falls and Jamestown. He also showed a rendering for a visitors’ center on Grand Island, inspired by one recently opened on Long Island. It reminds me of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fontana Boathouse.
At the end, the crowd went wild with cheers as the Governor finished by heaping praise on Buffalo.
Given my challenging trip to the event, the announcement of support for the light rail extension to Amherst and UB North was especially welcome to me. I was tempted to stay at North Campus until the new extension was built, knowing it would mean a much easier trip home. I recently posted more thoughts about this here.
For the Outer Harbor, the Governor announced that the Michigan Street [Seaway] Pier would be “redeveloped.” But frankly, the Michigan Street Pier doesn’t need to be redeveloped. What would have made much more sense and been much more transformative would have been an announcement of a plan to redevelop Terminals A and B for mixed, multiple uses, including ample indoor and outdoor public space.
The “Blueways” initiative to increase access to Buffalo’s waterways sounds intriguing. There is information in the briefing book, and on Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper’s website. But I can’t wait to learn more.
Other initiatives that will impact Buffalo, but were announced in other States of the State, include the Empire State Trail, and money for water and sewer infrastructure, and consolidation of local governments.
You read find the full “Buffalo Billion Squared” here (PDF). Given that the Governor recently told the Buffalo News that he gives odds of passage in the legislature at no better than even, we may need to make our voices heard.
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