Whenever New York governor Andrew Cuomo — that churning mass of grating sanctimony, unwarranted arrogance and personal nastiness — hurls petty edicts (No gatherings greater than 10 at Thanksgiving! Chicken wings don’t count as food in restaurants!) at his subjects, Steve Hawley, erstwhile pig farmer and our assemblyman, is usually there to throw them back.
I spoke recently with Hawley while sitting on a bench outside his insurance office in the Genesee Country Mall. An imbiber at the fountain of youth, he looks a good 15 years younger than his age of 73, and the imp within coexists easily with his role as deputy minority leader of the New York State Assembly’s Republicans.
Steve’s lineage includes poulterers and early suffragists and politicians (his father occupied the same Assembly seat). A shirttail ancestor, Jesse Hawley, conceived in 1807 the idea of a canal ‘connecting the waters of Lake Erie and those of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers’. His brainchild, the Erie Canal, was the antebellum internal improvement that transformed Upstate New York, not necessarily for the better. Jesse Hawley publicized his idea in a series of essays written from debtors’ prison; Steve’s thriving insurance business makes that prospect unlikely for him.
Last March, the Assembly voted 120-12 to give Gov. Cuomo ‘temporary’ powers to deal with COVID-19, in a measure that was shrewdly linked to $40 million in COVID relief. There followed a flood of executive orders, the forcible closing of churches, small shops and restaurants (but not Amazon or Walmart), and one-man rule that has reduced the New York State Legislature to the status of a junior-high school student council.
Hawley — ‘holding my nose’ — was among the 120 ayes, but by May he had become a prominent voice demanding ‘a return to normal, constitutional governance’, and he has since kept up the drumbeat of constitutional restoration. Steve says that ‘quietly, many members of the majority’ agree with him, but monarchy is so much easier than messy, fractious democracy, and besides, by ceding their authority, New York City Democratic legislators don’t have to hike up the New York State Thruway to grimy old Albany.
Of late, Hawley has denounced a measure introduced by a Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn that would give the governor or his designee the power to detain anyone who poses a ‘significant threat to public health’ due to carrying or exposure to a contagious disease. Isn’t this just a way of getting Typhoid Mary off the street?
‘Who knows?’ shrugs Hawley. For we have seen that almost any affront to personal liberties may be excused under pretext of protecting public health, and we don’t need a weatherman to know which way the police state blows.
Steve Hawley is the prime sponsor of a bill calling for a non-binding referendum asking voters ‘Should the state of New York be divided into two states?’ Historically this has been a project of the Democratic left, its champions numbering publisher William Randolph Hearst (in his progressive phase), feminist congresswoman Bella Abzug, and novelist-pugilist Norman Mailer, whose 1969 campaign for the mayoralty of New York City — motto ‘No More Bullshit’ — centered around proposals to make New York City the 51st state and devolve municipal powers from City Hall to the neighborhoods. Mailer’s was the freshest, most humane, most appealingly radical and most intelligent campaign run in modern New York State, which is probably why he got creamed.
What was even in the best of times a bad marriage between Upstate and Downstate is now the most abusive and dysfunctional union this side of The Burning Bed. Hawley’s referendum would be approved by upwards of 80 percent of voters in rural counties, and by majorities in every county outside the five boroughs. Assembly leadership, knowing that the heathen rage, have bottled up the bill in committee.
But if anyone could share the peace pipe it is Steve Hawley. The hail-fellow-well-met Hawley is a model of amity, not enmity. Popular with colleagues of both parties, he initiated an exchange program under which Solons from such exotic locales as the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island visit our district — seeing ‘dairy farms, fruit farms’ and talking to ‘implement dealers, immigrant laborers, farmers’ — and he visits theirs.
The ideal, he says, is ‘respectful relationships with people you may disagree with 80 percent of the time, but that’s OK. That’s what we need.’
Do we ever.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2021 US edition.