An Emerging Staten Island Narrative
Staten Island is a borough that has an uneasy relationship with the rest of New York City’s boroughs under the best of circumstances. It has felt treated like a literal and figurative dumping ground for the other boroughs’ garbage (at one point, 650 tons of garbage per day were dumped in Fresh Kills landfill). In 1993, a referendum for Staten Island to secede from New York City and form an independent city actually passed with voters. Rudy Giuliani smoothed things over and averted the secession by closing the Fresh Kills landfill and making the Staten Island Ferry free.
But now, after Sandy, Staten Islanders are feeling positively scorned. With an election in four days, this could spell some serious problems for Obama.
You wouldn’t know it from the news coverage, which portrays Manhattan and perhaps the Jersey Shore and Queens as hit hardest by the storm. But Staten Island arguably suffered the brunt of Sandy’s torrent. At least 19 of the the 41 people who have died in the storm died in Staten Island, including little children who were ripped from their mothers’ arms. But there has not much news coverage until today. Not coincidentally, the members of the media work in Manhattan and often live there. They do not live in Staten Island. New Jersey has a passionate and charismatic spokesman in its governor, Chris Christie. While people in Staten Island are homeless and powerless and grieving, the mayor — who has just embraced Obama — is going ahead with the New York City marathon on Sunday, which begins in Staten Island.
You might think of New York City as being the ultimate favorable territory for Obama. Staten Island is an exception to the rest of the city in this way as in so many others. Staten Island was the only borough to go for McCain in 2008. In fact, it has only elected the Democratic presidential nominee three times since 1952. The residents are likely not nearly as favorably disposed toward the Obama administration as the rest of New York City. Thus, they are less likely to see delays in aid as necessary hold-ups in a good faith effort, and more likely to see them as incompetence.
There is also a racial and class component. Staten Island is the only borough that is majority non-Hispanic white. Staten Islanders tend to perceive themselves as more working class than the rest of the city. That’s actually not true – in 1999 the median household income for Staten Island was $55,093 while for the rest of New York City it was $38,293. Even Manhattan had a median income of $47,030. My guess is that Staten Islanders tend to feel more working class because they sense they are poorer than the other non-Hispanic whites in the city, or at least the ones in Manhattan. When news articles muse on what the Sandy may do to waterfront real estate prices in the Hamptons, how can you not think that rich white people do not have any sense what the hell is really happening to the devastated working class areas?
Dolly Lenz, a high-end broker at Douglas Elliman in Manhattan, said that even though she was scrambling to get some clients appointments lined up in the wake of the storm, others in flooded areas like Battery Park City were “reassessing whether they want to be there on a long-term basis as they had originally thought.”
Her advice: “Take a pause, wait a few weeks and see what happens. Those kinds of decisions should not be made in a panic. They’re in a panic. They’re not accustomed to having their life upended that way.”
She said at least one deal, a $1 million year-round Hamptons rental, had fallen through. Before the storm, her client had “only wanted the primest of prime oceanfront.” Now the priorities have shifted to a home in the estate section farther inland. “They don’t want to put their family and pets in the way of any potential danger,” she said, “and do not wish to pursue the waterfront opportunity.”
There’s a sense of the white working class being ignored by the president who looks after minorities and rich elites. And this plays perfectly into the narrative that appeals to a certain stripe of Romney voter. With Obama and Democrats in power, your interests are ignored by elites who mock you and your values, and who are all too happy to give your hard-earned money to poor minorities.
I would be hesitant to say that Staten Island is Obama’s reverse-race Katrina for many reasons. First of all, it is impossible at this point to compare the scope of devastation. Also, it may well be the case that Staten Islanders are mistaken. Perhaps FEMA is doing the best it can possibly do; perhaps order will be restored shortly. Craig Fugate seems widely admired, and FEMA has been strongly praised otherwise. But there is little time to correct the narrative before November 6.
Sandy perhaps seemed like a bit of a positive for Obama. Although it might depress voting in very blue areas, these are mostly states that would go blue anyhow. He got to look presidential, Republican governor Chris Christie praised him to the skies, storms remind people of why they like a federal government who can marshal the resources to save people when state governments cannot. However, if the last taste in voters’ mouths is a bitter pill from Staten Islanders, who feel ignored by their president and billionaire mayor who is newly in love with the president, then that could make a difference. Perhaps not a huge difference, but this is a close race. And any difference might matter.
UPDATE: To be clear, I do not think this could possibly affect Obama’s chances in New York. But the coverage of Staten Island’s grievances has been a national story. It could affect voters watching and judging from afar — especially those inclined to identify with Staten Islanders.
UPDATE 2: I’m guessing the cancellation of the marathon radically reduces the chances that this will be a story with legs.