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Spitzer looks to WNY for advice Key players from area wield clout in state

A group of Buffalonians is beginning to wield its influence in the state.

It has no name, no membership list and no official meeting place. But its members' ideas and suggestions -- whispered in the ear of Eliot L. Spitzer, the new governor -- already are affecting state government.

These leaders in government, politics, business and the law are now "go to" people for Spitzer -- counselors he seeks out and whose opinions he values as he begins tackling a long list of campaign promises.

Their suggestions range from broad concepts such as reducing property taxes and improving the business climate to specific advice on hiring.

While completion of many items on the Spitzer agenda lies far in the future, the governor and his trusted aides -- such as senior adviser Lloyd Constantine and appointments secretary Francine James -- already are turning to this informal Kitchen Cabinet for advice and counsel.

"These are people he is in regular contact with because the region is of such particular importance," said Christine Anderson, Spitzer's press secretary.

Western New Yorkers who have penetrated the new governor's inner circle include Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and chief executive officer of M&T Bank; Mayor Byron W. Brown; Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; and former Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz of Cheektowaga.

Others include Larry Quinn, managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres; attorney Arnold B. Gardner, a member of the Board of Regents; Kenneth A. Schoetz, chief of the attorney general's Buffalo office; Leonard R. Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party; and Denise E. O'Donnell, the former U.S. attorney for Western New York whom Spitzer on Thursday named director of the Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Several sources say Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, also is frequently consulted, as is Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

As official "Friends of Eliot," the group has not voiced much criticism of Spitzer. Most are Democrats, all are campaign supporters, and some have served on various transition committees.

To a person, they insist that reviving the stagnant upstate economy should top the governor's agenda. In the short term, that means finding a top candidate to head the upstate office of the Empire State Development Corp., which, under Spitzer's plan, would have its headquarters in Buffalo.

"Right now, he's asking a lot of people for advice on the [development agency] chief," Anderson said.

To some extent, the new group replaces a cadre of Republicans who, headed by Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of Clarence, had advised then-Gov. George E. Pataki. Some members of that group, which includes Anthony H. Gioia, former ambassador to Malta, have resurfaced -- invited by Spitzer to consult on such issues as waterfront development.

Others, like Wilmers, also had Pataki's ear but now express optimism that Spitzer will listen more closely. What does Wilmers tell the new governor?

"The same things I say all over the place," Wilmers said. "The same things I said in '98; the same things I said in '88."

Wilmers has long complained that high property taxes and excessive business regulation have stymied growth upstate, where his bank conducts much of its operations. While Albany always has pushed upstate development, he still maintains it has ignored such core problems as high taxes.

He says Spitzer has said the right things in his first days in office.

"Anybody who wins with a 40-point majority has a tremendous mandate," Wilmers said.

Just about everyone familiar with the governor's inner circle says he pays special attention to Higgins, who took him on a waterfront tour shortly after the election. The congressman says they share similar views on the state's role in revitalizing the economy, as well as the idea that cities like Buffalo cannot rely on handouts from Washington and Albany.

Higgins, therefore, emphasizes to the new governor the need for state investment in the waterfront and transportation infrastructure. That, in turn, will attract the private development he says will deal with the city's most pressing problem -- a declining tax base.

Like Wilmers, Higgins says Spitzer's election mandate will harden into political muscle.

"He understands that I step on toes and that he has to step on toes," Higgins said.

The congressman's relations with Pataki never were cordial, and Democrats like Higgins tend to say nice things about other Democrats. But Higgins says he believes the advice the new governor is receiving will translate into more results than under the old administration.

"They want to understand the economic culture here," Higgins said, explaining the realization that such programs as Empire Zones and Power for Jobs are not enough to jump-start the upstate economy.

"George Pataki was highly dependent on people like Tom Reynolds and Tony Gioia, and they're very loyal guys," he said.

"I think Buffalo could have and should have received much more in the 12 years Pataki was governor," Higgins added. "Eliot Spitzer has a vision and the preparation to make his vision something tangible."

Gardner, a top Buffalo lawyer and longtime Democratic fund-raiser, has talked to Spitzer about appointments -- especially Empire State Development posts.

"He really has a particular empathy for our community," Gardner said.

Gardner also has been consulted on many of the dozens of other local appointments the governor will make in coming weeks. While some have accused Spitzer of an Ivy League bias in hiring, Gardner sees more of a commitment to selecting top-notch candidates.

"He's looking for people of ability and wants to identify those with upward mobility," he said. "It's long overdue."


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