A failed attempt to secede is still well-regarded in some quarters of the South, a century-and-a-half after the Civil War.
And the failed attempt to secede is apparently still well-regarded in some quarters of New York’s southern-most corner, a generation-and-a-half after the last breakaway attempt failed.
So says Staten Island City Councilman Joe Borelli.
“Secession is wildly popular on Staten Island now, especially on the South Shore,” Borelli said Tuesday, shortly before introducing a bill to get the ball rolling. “It’s something that never really dissipated. It’s a fight that’s been ongoing.”
In the early 1990s, 83 percent of Staten Islanders approved of a commission to study the possibility of secession and then 63 percent approved the measure in a referendum. But maneuvers in the State Capitol and City Hall defeated the movement.
Borelli now wants a do-over, but even if he were to garner popular support beyond the relatively white, conservative base on the South Shore – something that’s by no means assured – he’s unlikely to find it under the current city and state power structure.
His bill would create "a task force to study the feasibility of an independent city of Staten Island and to produce a report addressing the financial cost of secession." The task force would be made up of the Staten Island borough president, the comptroller, the schools chancellor, and the city councilmembers representing Staten Island, among other members. The task force would then have 18 months to submit a report to the City Council Speaker and the Mayor.
“I think we’re talking about, an effort was made years ago, bluntly, there was a lot of political opportunism then, nothing came of it,” Mayor Bill de Blasio recently told the Staten Island Advance. “I think there’s political opportunism now, I don’t think anything is going to come of it in the end because I think we are one city and I think Staten Islanders are so deeply connected to the rest of the city in so many ways.”
And this week, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said he thought it would be a “travesty” for the city to lose Staten Island.
“We’re a city of five boroughs, and I think we should stay that way,” Johnson said.
Borelli said the issue comes down to City Hall being unresponsive to Staten Island—for both bureaucratic and cultural reasons
“Whether it's bike lanes or parking regulations or a school, a school district or anything, it just seems that Staten Island does not want to go in the same direction as the rest of New York City quite often,” he told Gothamist/WNYC.
With a property tax base bigger than Atlanta or Miami, Borelli said, Staten Island would be viable as an independent city.
North Shore Councilmember Debi Rose, a Democrat, does not support the bill. Borelli’s Republican colleague Steven Matteo, the Council’s Minority Leader, is a co-sponsor.
Asked to comment on the need for secession, Matteo said simply, “Talk to Joe—it’s his bill.”
“It’s not something that can just be put on a bumper sticker,” Allen Cappelli, a former member of the secession commission and current member of the city Planning Commission, told the Advance. “There are so many issues you don’t even think about … apportionment of debt, things that are in the pipeline that need to be funded down the road, you’ve got all of these capital projects that are in the pipeline, schools, and other things that need to be done, who’s going to pay for that?”
Johnson said he understands many Staten Islanders might feel politically alienated, but he was hopeful a broader interest would prevail.
“Staten Island, overall, is a little more conservative than the city as a whole, so sometimes they may not be happy about things that are happening in the city,” he said. “But other pockets of the city are conservative as well, and ultimately we’re a city where we respect each other and coexist peacefully.”