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Dawidziak: Cuomo gets LI's 'relevance'

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Nassau County Executive Edward

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano at Hofstra on May 16 Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was on Long Island Monday to make a push for three issues he's making the centerpiece of his inaugural year. Whether you agree or disagree with him on them is secondary to the fact that he cares enough about the region to make his case here.

For too long, the Island has been treated like a redheaded stepchild when it comes to statewide politics -- particularly by myopic New York City Democrats. So his visit is all the more refreshing, since Cuomo is exactly that: a Democrat who hails from the great metropolis directly to the west -- albeit with better eyesight.

Predictably, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (the other Democratic state leader with strong ties to the city) retorted with, "It's irrelevant, as far as I'm concerned, [the legislators are] here. We're governing. That's the important thing."

Now, whether Silver meant to call Long Island irrelevant or the fact that the governor was pushing his agenda here irrelevant is . . . well, irrelevant. The quick dismissal of anything not city-centric is typical of city politicians. The fantasy that Long Island is an appendage of the city, dependent upon it for economic survival, has always been pure, expedient mythmaking.

Long Island has an economic history that's quite independent of New York City, thank you very much. Not only has Long Island's economy been singularly its own, but it has also proven to be remarkably resilient.

From its earliest times, up until less than 100 years ago, the Island was almost exclusively an agrarian-maritime economy. Residents either grew it or caught it, and then they sold it.

From the 1930s on, the infant aviation and defense industries took root. Companies named Grumman, Fairchild, Republic, Hazeltine and many others employed people by the thousands, creating a whole new financial base and network for Nassau and Suffolk counties. While turning out planes that would help win a world war and the lunar module that put men on the moon, these companies dominated the fiscal landscape.

Almost every family on Long Island had somebody working for one of these defense contractors. Not only that, but these giants fed countless smaller companies, which made parts or provided services.

Where was the dependence on New York City? The dependence was much greater on Washington, where the defense contracts were granted.

By the 1970s, the defense industry was winding down on Long Island as the big contractors started to migrate to the more economically advantageous climate of the Sun Belt. The region went into a recession -- but no worse than the rest of the country. And within a few years, the Island transformed its economy to small, white-collar, professional, technical, managerial, service-oriented businesses.

Compare this extraordinary metamorphosis to so many rust belt cities that, years ago, lost major manufacturing industries and still haven't recovered.

Even today, in times of national economic distress, Long Island continues to hold its own. Granted, our region faces challenges. But unemployment here is at about 7 percent -- significantly less than the national rate.

The fiction of Nassau and Suffolk's dependence on New York City is the kind of rationale used to impose unfair measures like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax on suburban companies. It could be argued that the reverse is true: The city depends on Long Island to provide qualified, educated workers, theater attendees and restaurant patrons.

So, no matter how you feel about a property tax cap, ethics reform or gay marriage, give the governor credit for recognizing that Long Island is an independent, vibrant region whose opinion, when it comes to statewide politics, is anything but irrelevant.