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PATAKI HEARS OUT AFRICAN-AMERICANS

On a day when the last thing he cared to discuss was politics, Gov. George E. Pataki seemed to score political points Friday with an African-American community encouraged by the opportunity to have his ear.

Pataki first presided over a Black History Month event in the Rath Building lobby allocating a $1 million state grant for sites linked to the Underground Railroad.

And after a 90-minute meeting with about 20 African-American leaders from business, education and the church, both the governor and the luncheon attendees pronounced the first-of-its-kind local meeting a success in building communication.

"I always enjoy listening to community leaders and hearing their concerns and their suggestions, what their needs are, and what the state can be doing to help meet those needs," Pataki said after the meeting. "I do it on a regular basis, although maybe not on such a high profile."

And black leaders, some of whom had earlier called such a parley "overdue," left more than encouraged by the tone and level of concern shown by Pataki.

"It was very cordial; no one was challenging toward him," said Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo NAACP. "Everybody seemed satisfied with his responses."

Though two potential Democratic opponents in 2002 -- state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo -- essentially launched their campaigns last week, Pataki refused to bite at any political bait. With 21 months to go before voters choose the next governor, Pataki said it is "unfortunate" that the "perpetual campaign" has become part of the state's political landscape.

Instead, he took every opportunity to establish new contacts with a community that almost always falls heavily into the Democratic camp. In fact, the latest Zogby International poll shows that while African-Americans are not disapproving of their governor (47 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable), they vote overwhelmingly for McCall and Cuomo in a head-to-head match.

Zogby pollster Alan D. Crockett said such favorable numbers are good in a Democratic constituency.

"For a Republican," he said, "this is a good thing."

So just days after McCall (who is African-American) cultivated black audiences in Buffalo, Pataki took the same tack in events arranged by County Executive Joel A. Giambra, the governor's Republican ally in Buffalo.

Friday's public highlight was the Rath Building ceremony, in which the governor discarded his prepared speech and extolled black contributions to America.

Speaking with unusual exuberance, Pataki related "the emotional experience" as a youngster of discovering old tunnels and buildings near his Peekskill home that once served as Underground Railroad escape routes, only to have developers bulldoze them years later.

"Children of the 21st century won't have that opportunity," he said. "We're not going to let that happen anymore."

The governor pointed out that he signed legislation in 1997 to create a Freedom Trail Commission to coordinate development of Underground Railroad sites throughout the state, with many in Western New York. With the $1 million awarded Friday to preserve the facilities and encourage cultural tourism, Pataki said new opportunities to "live and experience" that history are possible.

But it might have been the meeting set up by Giambra's office that proved the most profitable part of his day. He deflected criticism over not holding similar meetings during his six years at New York State's helm, pointing to frequent gatherings in other parts of the state and bringing presidential GOP candidate George W. Bush to an East Side church in 2000.

Indeed, sources close to former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo could recall only one similar meeting with black clergy (that included the Rev. Al Sharpton) in Buffalo during the 1994 Democratic State Convention. And some of those attending said they could not recall anything like Friday's meeting ever arranged by former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski -- a Democrat.

"I'm just elated the governor and Joel would think enough to be inclusive," said Oscar E. Rayford, president of Universal Equipment and Supplies. "People may criticize them, but they didn't have to do this. I don't think it was just politics."

"I thought it was excellent," added Brenda McDuffie, president of the Buffalo Urban League. "It was an honest dialogue around significant issues."

When asked if the meeting resulted from the challenges posed by a potential McCall candidacy in 2002, McDuffie said she didn't care.

"Whatever motivated it, it's good that it happened," she said.

Several sources said topics included ways to increase black employment, black participation in public works projects, and education issues.

Still, at least one Democrat attending the public portion of the Friday events said the McCall candidacy had everything to do with the governor's focus.

"It's a good thing that Carl McCall announced because we won a little bit today," said County Legislature Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples, D- Buffalo. "This certainly would not have come without Carl McCall's announcement."

She also said the African-American vote is bound to become only stronger, justifying the governor's attempts at outreach.

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