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The Battle for New York State History: Representative Paul Tonko versus Governor Andy Cuomo

The State of New York State History

On April 12, 2015, Representative Paul Tonko received the Legislative Leadership Award from the Museum Association of New York (MANY). He was a co-winner with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of the inaugural award by MANY.  The award recognizes exemplary leadership in support of museums and cultural institutions in the state. These two elected officials were cited for their work in Congress in support of funding the Office of Museum Services within the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Representative Tonko appeared in person in Corning to receive the award at the annual MANY conference. During the reception in the glass-blowing exhibit area, he spoke to the attendees. Unfortunately, I took no notes and did not record what he said. In general terms, I was impressed with what he had to say, with his vocabulary and choice of words on behalf of local and state history. As I recall, he never once mentioned them in conjunction with economic development or job creation. It was all about the civic and social importance of local history in the community.

On April 2, 2017, Representative Tonko was present in Saratoga Springs at the MANY conference when Regent Roger Tilles was the award winner. As a member of the Culture sub-committee, Tilles deals directly with the state Archives, Library, and Museum. He received the award due to work in support of the Museum Education Act. During the reception, Tonko addressed the audience. This time I paid more attention to his words. At times he seemed to be channeling my blog. I do not know him and I doubt he has read them, nonetheless one couldn’t help but wish when it comes to local and state history that he was governor. He is well aware of the of the importance of a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community and the importance of local history to the social fabric and civic health of a municipality. Once again, there was no mention of economic development or job creation as primary responsibilities of local and state history organizations.

It is hard to imagine Governor Cuomo ever winning the MANY Legislative Leadership award unless it was a crass political move as a quid pro quo in his quest to be President. Let’s look at some of the key actions which have occurred during his tenure.

1. Member items have been eliminated. Given the chronic corruption in the state government, one might easily applaud this attempt to rein in the endemic misuse and abuse of taxpayer money. Unfortunately, the action threw out the baby with the bathwater. Many small non-profits seeking comparatively small sums of funding turned to their local legislator and/or senator (as I did) for support. Larger scale funding often was a bureaucratic challenge. Starlyn D’Angelo, executive director Albany Shaker Heritage Society and current MANY Board of Director, raised this very point at the History Roundtable chaired by State Legislator Steve Englebright on May 29, 2014 with Regent Tilles in attendance (see Report from the NYS History Commission Roundtable). It was Devin Lander’s last day as a legislative aide before becoming executive director of MANY, his position before becoming State Historian.  While there is some funding in Republican Senate districts as Fort Niagara availed itself of, there is no state-wide mechanism to address the small-scale needs of the history community (see January History News).

2. REDC funding has now begun a new cycle of funding application for the 2017 awards. To some extent, the funding simply includes the types of funding that history organizations directly applied to NYSOPRHP and NYSAC for in the past. In general terms the local history organization has no place in this process. The Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) are interested in economic development and job development. Imagine if the local library had to request funding based on those standards…or the police department!

The game is rigged against the history community. At the recent MANY conference, Ross Levi, Marketing Initiatives for Empire State Development for I Love New York and the public face of the Path through History, spoke in the “Partnerships for Progress: Museums and Tourism” session.  The theme of the session was the ways in which museums and cultural institutions can partner with I Love New York to promote their organizations. I will more to say about this in future posts taking into account the Tourism Advocacy Council, the plenary address at MANY, and related materials.

In the meantime, I wish to report on a question asked from the audience to Ross about the local tourism representation. At the second Women’s Suffrage conference last October 7, (see Women’s Suffrage Centennial), Rick Newman, Seneca County TPA, distributed a list of the Tourism Promotion Agency (TPA) from every county. By law, I Love New York works through these agencies and not directly with local history organizations. Ross suggested that the local history organizations contact the TPA in their county. These TPAs could be an advocate for the history community in the REDC funding process.

I take Ross at his word. While I do not know him well, I think he genuinely believed what he was saying was sound advice with real world application. Here we have a classic example of the disconnect between the Albany-Manhattan bubble and that real world. While I can only comment anecdotally, I have heard multiple incidents from people in the history community about TPAs who don’t give them the time of day. TPAs are interested in wineries, recreational tourism, and sites that bring head to beds. TPAs often are non-government organizations, that is, chambers of commerce, working to do what is best for its members. The members rarely are small non-profit history organizations and are even if they were or became members, they are not likely to carry much weight. There is nothing wrong with Chambers of Commerce actively promoting economic development, but once again it means the history community is left high and dry with nowhere to turn in the funding process.

3. Speaking of nowhere to turn, let’s turn to the great failure itself, the Path through History. It will celebrate its fifth anniversary on August 28, 2017. What does it have to show for itself? I attended the kickoff meeting for the HV region on January 25, 2013 (see A Fork in the Road on the Path through History).  Of the ten regions originally created and recipients of $100,000 grants from the State, how many of those regions are still functioning? If they are functioning, what do they do? If they aren’t functioning, what replaced them? Was there ever any additional funding?

Historic sites are ranked by revenue/budget for tourist purposes. Within the Hudson Valley region where I live, there are five over the $1,000,000 threshold I Love New York uses to calculate the crown jewels for tourism. I don’t know what they are in this region but some possibilities include Historic Hudson Valley (multiple sites including Kykuit), Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt library and homes run by the National Park Service and National Archives, and the Culinary Institute. Approximately 70% of the organizations in the region are under $50,000 in revenue meaning they are below the radar where anyone in the state gives a dam about them.

In my blog after the initial meeting, I recommended that the $100,000 be used to hire people who would create paths. Years later, I recommended that there be funding through the REDC process to hire PATHFINDERS who would create the paths that the TPAs and I Love New York would promote (see Create Pathfinders in Your Region). One region tried and it was rejected – there is no place for cooperation and collaboration no matter what jargon terms are used at conferences and meetings. Once again the history community is left high and dry.

As it turns out there are people at the grassroots level who can and have created paths through history. Generally these are conjunction with a conference. I will be writing about these examples in a future post. Of course, these are created without state support or promotion.

The cost to New York State of the failure to respect the Tonko model is enormous if difficult to quantify. The stakes for the country are even larger. It goes to the heart of what it means to be an American and resident of one’s community. In a recent op-ed piece entitled “America’s Political Disunion” by Robert P. Jones (NYT 5/2/17), he cited British writer G. K. Chesterton’s observation after he had visited the United States that unlike European countries we did not rely on ethnic kinship or cultural character to create a shared identity. People of any race, any ethnicity, any religion can and have been American. Once upon a time in New York, German Palatines, the English, the Dutch, the French both Huguenots and Catholics, Scotch-Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics, were people of different “nations” and types. Today they are all Americans and lumped together as white. And anyone who thinks all the Haudenosaunee nations live together in a two-dimensional kumbaya relationship as one Native American people should think again or think for the first time.

We are a storytelling species. We’ve lost that story feeling. We’ve lost the narrative. Can we tell a shared story of our history at the national level, at the state level, at the community level? Can we tell a narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history? What is our shared narrative in our community? What is our shared narrative in our state? What is our shared narrative as Americans?

For most of the past 400 years, America did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story.

The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of Egypt and building a new Jerusalem….

During the revolution, the founding fathers had that fierce urgency too and drew just as heavily on the Exodus story….

Frederick Douglas embraced the Exodus too….

The successive immigrant groups saw themselves performing an exodus to a promised land…

In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders drew on the Exodus more than any other story (David Brooks, “The Unifying American Story, NYT 3/21/17).

There is a unity in the story from long ago in lands far far away to boldly going where no one has gone before.  There are stories to be told in every community throughout the land from Ice Age to Global Warming about the people who lived there and the people who do live there. There are stories to be told about how all the different peoples of the Mohawk Valley became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the peoples who arrived at Castle Garden became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the peoples who arrived at Ellis Island became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the people who arrived at JFK Airport became part of We the People.

There are stories to be told if We the People are to survive as a nation, to long endure, to not become Syria, to not become Yugoslavia, to not become Iraq. We don’t even celebrate the birthday of our state or the anniversary of when we constituted ourselves as New Yorkers.

Brooks ends his op-ed piece with a call to leadership for We the People.

What’s needed is an act of imagination, someone who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.

Neither of the candidates provided such a vision in 2016. They didn’t even try. Will anything be different in the 2020 rematch? Maybe Tonko should run for president instead of Cuomo.


The New York State Historian Position: Creating the New York State History Advisory Coalition

The investigation into the hiring of Devin Lander, former executive director of MANY and legislative aide to Assemblyman Engelbright continues by drilling down the state bureaucracy. In the previous post, the position of the Commissioner of Education was reviewed. Mary Ellen Elia had received an open letter from two prominent state historians about the state historian position. In this post, we consider what happened next.

The Commissioner did not respond directly to the letter.  The letter called for reinstating the Office of State Historian as an independent position, reporting directly to the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education. If the Commissioner of Education did not wish to respond, she had every right to delegate it to the Commissioner of Cultural Education.

In case you are not clear on exactly what that position is, there is an Office of Cultural Education. The name itself does not provide a clear indication of its areas of responsibilities. According to its website this department consists of the self-explanatory

New York State Archives
New York State Library
New York State museum which includes the state historian

and the less obvious

Office of Educational Television and Public Broadcasting which asks on the website “Are you surprised to find that your public television and radio stations are directly connected with the State Education Department?”

New York State Summer School of the Arts (NYSSSA) comprised of seven residential schools that offer four-week training in the specific disciplines of ballet, choral studies, dance, media arts, orchestral studies, theatre and visual arts at college campuses.

Only the website of the Library resembles that of the Office of Cultural Education itself and one may reasonably conclude that these entities have had a varied history before being lumped together here.

There is a Committee on Cultural Education within the Board of Regents. The Chair is Roger Tilles of Long Island. His contact information is He has spoken at MANY and attended the History Roundtable held by Assemblyman Engelbright on May 29, 2014, regarding the proposed NYS History Committee. I was at both events and have had some innocuous email exchanges with him. He definitely is someone for the History Community to contact regarding the position of the State Historian as well as the status of history in general in the state.

JudithJohnson from Westchester is another person on the committee to consider contacting ( She was a superintendent in the Peekskill school system. While there, she spoke at an Underground Railroad conference held in Peekskill. When a tree on the campus of the high school used in the Revolution to hang spies finally died, she mourned the loss as part of the heritage of the community. These actions are suggestive of someone who has an interest in history and how to bring local history to students.

The other members are:

Christine Cea, Staten Island (
James Cottrell, member at large, Brooklyn (
Judith Chin, Queens ( who is identified as a lifelong educator and was supervising superintendent in the NYC school system with an interest in immigration based on her own family history
Beverly Ouderkirk, North Country ( who is identified as having been a teacher, principal, and superintendent in a variety of locations throughout the state.

I have had no contact with any of them. This committee should not be ignored in the effort to strengthen the status of state and local history in the schools and communities of the state as well as in the state bureaucracy.

As for the position of the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Cultural Education, it is vacant at present. The proposed Office of New York State Historian probably would report to this person parallel with the Archives, Library, and Museum as Judy Wellman and Carol Kammen suggested in their correspondence. They recommended that decisions about the state historian position be deferred until this position was filled. However, as it turned out there were regulatory constraints best known to those inside the Albany bubble requiring filling the state historian position by May 19 and that deadline took priority.

This meant if Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia wanted to delegate responding to the letter from Carol and Judy, there effectively was no one to delegate it to. The request being made was to elevate the present position of the state historian to the position reporting directly to the presently-vacant Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education. For Mary Ellen to delegate the response to Mark Schaming, the Director of the State Museum was inappropriate. Even if he agrees whole heartedly with the request, he does not have the authority to comply with it: he can not elevate a position to his own level or to direct reporting to the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education. Presumably that individual could once hired if so inclined but Mark can not.

Why then did Mary Ellen delegate the response to someone who lacks the authority to act on it? Did she not understand what was being asked? Did a staff assistant who screens the mail to her simply tell her the subject was the state historian position so she delegated it without reading it? Did she read and understand the request, reject it, and delegate it to Mark to write the brushoff? There is insufficient information available to me to make this determination but no matter which of the three it is, it reflects poorly on her.

As for Mark’s response, much of it is standard blather jargon thanking you for writing without engaging the actual letter. There is nothing personal in this, it is simply standard operating procedure within the government especially if you are asking someone to do something different.

Mark’s response to Judy and Carol contributed to a post by former State Historian Bob Weible on New York History Blog on May 10,  What’sNext for the New York State Historian? In his post, he characterized the response rather harshly:

His inept and condescending response simply thanked Kammen and Wellman for their interest and clumsily assured them that things were being handled appropriately. He never answered the question of why the department chose to ignore its 2011 Regents-approved strategic plan to “reinvent” the Office of State History.

To be fair to Mark, he has no authority to reinvent that Office. He never should have been charged with responding to the letter in the first place. The responsibility belongs higher up with the Commissioner of Education who delegated when she should have taken charge. The tone of Bob’s comment also sheds light on the background of his abrupt departure last summer immediately after the New York State History Conference. It is reasonable to conclude that these two people had come to a parting of the ways perhaps even about the very position of the state historian.

Bob also referred to a letter from the New York Academy of History (NYAH) to Governor Cuomo advocating for a more vigorous effort on behalf of New York State history. I had the good fortune of having lunch with Ken Jackson, the founder and president of the organization, and Lisa Keller, a board member, at the annual meeting of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network last October when he delivered the keynote address. I’d like to think given our discussion that I played some role in the generation of the letter to Cuomo which also seems to have gone nowhere…and this from the person who gave the opening address when the Path through History project was rolled out on August 28, 2012 (as to what he said about the project three years later in his keynote at the GHHN is best left unreported!).

What then should the history community do now? One of the suggestions to Cuomo was the creation of an Advisory Board consisting of professional historians. According to the website of NYAH its own advisory board consists of:

Kenneth T. Jackson (Committee Chair), Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
Carol Berkin, Distinguished Professor of History Emerita, Baruch College
Laurence Hauptman, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
Lisa Keller, Professor of History, Purchase College SUNY
Susan Lewis, Associate Professor, Deputy Chair and Graduate Advisor, Department of History, SUNY New Paltz
Dr. Dennis J. Maika, New Netherland Institute.

Expanding on that list of concerned historians, the open letter of Carol and Judy was sent to:

Rose Harvey, Commissioner, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
Thomas J. Ruller, Archivist, New York State Archives
Gavin Landry, Director, I Love New York

Amie Alden, Executive Chair, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York
Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO, New York State Historical Association
Jay DeLorenzo, Executive Director, Preservation League of New York State
Carol Faulkner, President, Upstate New York Women’s History Group
Peter Feinman, Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education (blogger)
Lynn (Spike) Herzing, Director, New York Cultural and Heritage Tourism Network
Carol Kammen, Historian, Tompkins CountyLisa Keller, New York Academy of History
Devin Lander, Executive Director, Museum Association of New York [now the State historian]
Sara Ogger, New York Humanities Council
Gerry Smith, President, Association of Public Historians, New York State
John Warren, New York History Blog
Judith Wellman Director, Historical New York Research Associates.

Some additional individuals in the private sector with a statewide perspective to be considered for an advisory board are

Robert E. Bullock, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government
Bruce Dearstyne, former archivist and author/blogger/columnist
John McEneny, former municipal historian and state legislator
Bob Weible, former state historian

and representatives from the New York State Archaeological Association/New York Archaeological Council and New York State Council of Social Studies among others.

Carol and Judy had to write an open letter because there is no venue through which to express their concerns. There is no state-wide organization advocating on behalf of the history community. I recommend that the history community take it upon itself to form such an advisory group rather than wait for the Governor’s permission to do. The New York State History Advisory Coalition consist of state-minded representatives of the history committee who meet on a quarterly basis in Albany to discuss, develop, and advocate with the State legislature, State Education Department, Board of Regents, NYSOPRHP as appropriate in support of a history agenda in New York State. Topics for consideration by such a group include but are not limited to:

1. The position of the State Historian including staff, resources, and funding

2. The duties and responsibilities of the municipal historians including training, funding, and revised guidelines

3. The place of state and local history in the k-12 curriculum and the training, certification, and professional development of teachers accordingly

4. The development and promotion of the history heritage of the state for cultural heritage tourism so for example people watching AMC’s “Turn” about Washington’s spy ring in Long Island don’t just see ads for “Virginia is for Lovers” but are directed to real New York Paths through History about the State’s role in the American Revolution

5. Establishing funding sources through the REDC process for anniversaries, state heritage areas, and Paths through History that encourage cooperation and collaboration so they aren’t merely jargon buzz words but the State puts its money where its mouth is.

6.  Connecting the residents of the state to their local and state history as a matter of civics to enhance the social fabric so we can live with each other as fellow New Yorkers.

7. Maintaining a database of the academic publications related to state history and supporting the conferences, symposia, and history weekends which are held throughout the state.

Suggestions welcomed. Comments appreciated. Who is willing to host the first meeting? Who would attend?

The Commissioner of Education and the NYS Historian

At present the position of the New York State Historians lies deep within the bowels of the state bureaucracy, starved for resources, and scarcely able to see the light of day through all the bureaucratic levels above it.

Formerly, the State Historian reported to the Director of the New York State Museum, who reports to the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Culture and Education, who reports to the Executive Deputy Commissioner of Education, who reports to Commissioner of Education, who answers to the Board of Regents.

But what does that mean? Continue reading “The Commissioner of Education and the NYS Historian”

Whither The New York State Historian?

The sudden retirement of Bob Weible, the New York State Historian, provides an opportunity to reassess the position. What does the history community want from the state historian – assuming there even should be one in the first place? Continue reading “Whither The New York State Historian?”

Social Studies Conference Commentary

The New York State Council for the Social Studies annual conference was held March 22-24 in Saratoga Springs. Several of the sessions were related to the new common core curriculum in social studies.

The primary presenter was Larry Paska of the New York State Education whom Bruce Dearstyne identified in a post last week as the point person in the state for the project. Also speaking was Regent James Dawson. Continue reading “Social Studies Conference Commentary”

Social Studies Curriculum:Will Standardization Hurt Local History?

The movement to evaluate teacher performance took a new turn recently. According to a press release from Governor Cuomo dated February 16, 2012: “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York State Education Commissioner John King, and New York State United Teachers President Richard C. Iannuzzi today announced a groundbreaking agreement on a new statewide evaluation system that will make New York State a national leader in holding teachers accountable for student achievement.” Continue reading “Social Studies Curriculum:Will Standardization Hurt Local History?”