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New York City: The 51st State?

Norman Mailer (left) and Jimmy Breslin (right): would-be architects of the 51st state.

American history is filled with failed, idealistic campaigns for office. It is also filled with failed, idealistic attempts to form new states. Most states, at least once in their histories, have seen proposals to split the states into two or more pieces. Texas and California have been the subjects of such proposals many times—in fact, a plan to split California into six states was advanced in 2014, but failed when proponents were caught submitting fraudulent petitions to inflate support for the measure. An attempt to split California into three states was shot down by the California Supreme Court in 2018. Splitting states sometimes works out. Kentucky and West Virginia were split from Virginia; Tennessee was split from North Carolina; Alabama was split from Georgia; and Maine was split from Massachusetts. The most recent partitioning of a state, however, was the creation of West Virginia, in 1863. 156 years later, all states have remained intact, despite scores of attempts to split them up. One of the more famous proposals came in 1969. Author Norman Mailer decided to run for mayor of New York City, and he had big plans. Problems in New York were mounting, just like in many other cities at the time. Crime was rising, traffic was terrible, and pollution was unbearable. The incumbent mayor, Republican John Lindsay, was getting pummelled with criticism for poorly handling the terrible blizzard that hit the city in February 1969. Candidate Mailer had solutions. His solutions might require more authority than a mere mayor can wield. To take care of that, Mailer’s campaign held that New York City should petition the government for statehood. It wasn’t the first time anyone had suggested that New York City should break away. In 1861, as part of his opposition to the Civil War, Mayor Fernando Wood promoted that New York City (then just the island of Manhattan) should join with Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and the rest of Long Island to form the Free State of Tri-Insula. The plan was never very popular among New Yorkers, and became even less so when secessionists fired on Fort Sumter that year. Mailer didn’t want to leave the country, of course. He saw New York City as a viable state, and one that suffers greatly due to unequal taxes. The city, Mailer reasoned, pays $14 billion in state and federal taxes, but only gets about $3 billion back. As a state, a good chunk of this money would remain in the new state’s coffers. Further, the new state would build a casino somewhere, maybe Roosevelt Island or Riker’s Island or Randall’s Island, whose profits would go straight to the state government. New York’s upstate/downstate rivalry is nothing unique; many states have similar clashes. Mailer hoped he could ride it to Gracie Mansion.

Campaign buttons for Mailer and Breslin’s 1969 shot.

Mailer had more plans than just statehood. Backed by cultural and literary luminaries like Pete Hammill, Gloria Steinem, Flo Kennedy, Jack Newfield, and Joe Flaherty, he started forming grand plans. He teamed up with New York Post columnist Jimmy Breslin to form a “ticket”. Mailer sought the Democratic nomination for mayor, and Breslin sought the Democratic ticket for city council president. The two offices are not linked like those of the president and the vice president, but their idea was that, if elected, they would work together as a team. Breslin had initially sought the mayor’s job, but Mailer talked him out of it. It was Breslin who came up with the campaign’s slogan: “New York gets an imagination—or it dies!” The self-styled “left-conservative” Mailer believed the city could be saved by some changes that were nothing less than radical. The Mailer-Breslin platform: Statehood. Mailer wanted his first act as mayor to be a citywide referendum on statehood. If it succeeded, a new state constitution would have to be drawn up and submitted to the New York state legislature and then to the United States Congress, but the people of the would-be state needed to get behind it first.
Transportation. All private vehicles would be banned in Manhattan. Taxis, buses, and jitneys would be permitted to continue operation, but nothing else. Parking lots would be constructed at strategic points around Manhattan where commuters could leave their cars when entering the city. From there, they could use the existing transit options, as well as the new monorail that would be built surrounding the circumference of Manhattan. This monorail track would be approximately 35 miles long. If you don’t like any of those, you can avail yourself of one of the free bicycles that the city would provide.
Pollution. Pollution would be expected to reduce by 60% following the elimination of cars from the city. All incinerators would be mandated to have pollution-control devices on them. And one Sunday every month would be designated a “Sweet Sunday”. On Sweet Sunday, no mechanical form of transportation is allowed to operate—including trains, buses, and even elevators. Citizens would find ways to decompress in this sweet, clean world, just for the day.
Education. All neighborhoods would be given complete control over how their schools would look and operate. They could hire any teachers they wanted, and establish any curricula they wanted. The Mailer-Breslin ticket wanted to move the new state away from the large, impersonal kinds of operations that large high schools and universities have.
Housing. The new state would manage rehabilitation of all decaying buildings—not the demolition of them. Ownership of apartments would be the goal for all tenants.
Welfare. The position of the new state would be to encourage the federal government to absorb 90% of welfare costs nationwide. As to the new state’s part, it would fund daycare centers, managers for the buildings in rehabilitation, hire people to run recreational programs—all of which would provide jobs and reduce the demand on welfare. As a bonus, the money used to fund welfare workers would also drop, with fewer people using the program.
Crime. The new state would leave it up to the communities to decide how best to police themselves. They would hire the cops they saw fit and would receive funding for them from the state. The state would only intervene if a community requested it.

The cover of the pamphlet where Mailer and Breslin explained their platform.

Besides this stated platform, Mailer was personally out of sync with some liberal ideas. He felt birth control should be illegal, for example. He also opposed the legalization of marijuana. It’s not that he was afraid of what the drug might do to people—he was just worried that cigarette companies would muscle in and take it over. Mailer and Breslin’s campaign was perhaps the most interesting one of the 1969 mayoral election. It was not the most successful one. In the Democratic primary, Mailer came in fourth place (out of five candidates), carrying just 5% of the vote. (Breslin didn’t do any better in his race.) Democrats chose Comptroller Mario Procaccino, who narrowly beat former Mayor Robert Wagner, who was looking to win his old job back. Eventually John Lindsay, who lost the Republican primary that year, was reëlected as the candidate for New York’s Liberal Party. (One quirk of New York politics is that it’s possible to run statewide as the nominee of more than one political party. Frequently, candidates who are nominated by the Democratic or Republican parties will also get nominations from the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party or the Working Families Party. These parties will take the liberty of nominating another candidate if they are not satisfied with one of the two main parties’ candidates. When a minor party pulls support in a state or municipal election in New York, a candidate can be doomed. It’s unusual for a candidate to appear solely on the ballot for one of the minor parties and go on to win, but Lindsay did it. He went on to quit the Republican Party and run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, which he lost.) After the election, Mailer did not continue to advocate for statehood. In 1996, the New York Times contacted him to ask him about the old movement, but he didn’t wish to discuss it. For Breslin’s part, he prefers to think of New York as an “international city”, and said no more. 1969’s champions of statehood for New York are no longer interested. That doesn’t mean the idea of statehood for New York is going away anytime soon. In 2003, Queens City Councilman Frank Vallone revived Mailer’s statehood idea. He even made some similar arguments that Mailer did: Albany takes too much of their money while giving the city nothing, and he remarked that “the real mayor of New York is [New York State Assembly President] Sheldon Silver.” Vallone felt that even talking about the idea would draw attention to the plight of New York City, pushed around by the upstate bullies. For its part, the New York City Council never even brought it up for a vote. Maybe New York City will never become a state, but no doubt someone’s going to propose it again one of these days.

After Mailer’s loss, the 51-star flag was not needed, and still isn't—not yet, anyway.


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