Who in Western New York has the governor's ear? It's a question that may have no adequate answer, and is therefore one that holds great importance for this region.
Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, a Democrat, obviously has allies in Western New York, an upstate stronghold for the party. Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo and Mayor Byron W. Brown are two obvious supporters with strong connections to the governor. That's good as far as it goes, but it's not enough when the need is to command Spitzer's attention.
This is, bluntly, about money. Anthony Gioia, who served President Bush as U.S. ambassador to Malta, is Western New York's premier Republican fund-raiser. When he called then-Gov. George E. Pataki, the governor answered. The same goes for Robert Wilmers, the founder and chairman of M&T Bank. When he talked, Pataki listened. And both made calls for the good of the community, not to gain advantage -- the real key to the effectiveness of this kind of pipeline, and the only real excuse for its existence.
In part because of such past connections, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. was formed and the state committed to restoring the towers of the H.H. Richardson Complex. Action isn't always guaranteed, but a hearing is.
There were also Republican office-holders, including Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds and Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who could get Pataki's attention, but those are politicians, each with his own agenda, and to some extent able to be ignored. They lacked the concentration of clout that comes with wealth. (That works both ways. Dennis Rivera, former head of the state's most powerful and wealthy health care workers union, compelled not just the governor's ear but often his signature when it came to special-interest health legislation.)
But what Western New Yorker can play that role with Spitzer? For Pataki to win office, he desperately needed to do well in Western New York, upstate's most populous area. That gave him good reason to listen to men such as Gioia and Wilmers. But, unlike Pataki, Spitzer had a lock on New York City. Upstate was not unimportant to him, but it didn't play the critical role that it did for his predecessor. That sharply reduces the governor's need for upstate money and therefore, limits the chances for Western New Yorkers to command attention.
None of this means Spitzer will ignore this region. He campaigned on a pledge to improve the withering upstate economy, after all, and already has taken steps to improve its prospects. He could be just what the doctor ordered.
But there's nothing like having someone in the private sector who can pick up the phone and get a prompt call back. If that person lives in Western New York now, he's keeping a decidedly low profile.