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New roles challenge Hoyt; The region's former longtime assemblyman finds himself serving as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's eyes and ears upstate.

Just moments after Andrew M. Cuomo wrapped up an appearance at Buffalo State College last month, Sam Hoyt was making the governor look good.

The former assemblyman, who now sits as regional president of the state's main economic development agency, was telling reporters about new Cuomo directives to flex state powers of eminent domain at the eternally stalled Peace Bridge project.

Neighborhood properties would be acquired by this summer, Hoyt promised, and plaza expansion would follow immediately.

The Peace Bridge situation illustrates just how closely in sync Hoyt finds himself these days with a governor determined to leave his mark on New York while on a road some say leads to the White House. If a down-and-out place like Buffalo looks good, so does Cuomo.

And few are working harder than Hoyt to make Cuomo look good.

"This governor makes my job challenging, because he has a laserlike obsession about being the leader who truly turns around the second largest city in New York," Hoyt said a few days ago. "With that comes enormous pressure."

After 19 years in an Assembly seat he inherited from his late father, Hoyt faced a crossroads before joining the new administration Aug. 1. His image was battered and bruised after Assembly leadership disciplined him over an affair with an Albany intern, and he won his last primary election by a mere 257 votes.

Hoyt also found himself under constant assault by political foes in City Hall and elsewhere. And after opposing Speaker Sheldon Silver in a 2000 abortive coup, Hoyt never ascended to the inner circle of Assembly leadership.

But through it all Hoyt, 50, has proven a fierce Cuomo loyalist -- even during Cuomo's disastrous primary campaign for governor against H. Carl McCall in 2002.

Once Cuomo finally won the Governor's Mansion, he plucked Hoyt out of the Assembly last year for a vast portfolio that includes:

*A $139,000-a-year job as regional president of the Empire State Development Corp., sitting in a Cobblestone District office building where he oversees economic development efforts for virtually everything west of Utica and Binghamton.

*Interim chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a Cuomo appointment that gives him vast powers over waterfront properties that some say represent the area's future.

*Chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority that presided over the failed effort to build a new span across the Niagara River and became a symbol of the region's economic paralysis.

*A possible appointment, according to knowledgeable sources, to a new panel called the Proceeds Allocation Board that will distribute unused Power Authority voltage.

Howard A. Zemsky, co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Council and incoming chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, may be Cuomo's top policy man in Western New York. But few disagree that Hoyt is now the governor's "go-to guy" -- the one receiving Sunday morning phone calls dispatching him on various missions across upstate New York.

"Sam has emerged as a very influential player with Gov. Cuomo, both personally and professionally," said former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, now an Albany lobbyist and insider. "He wears many hats, and they all reflect the governor's confidence in him. He certainly has the governor's ear."

>On-the-job training

And what are Hoyt's qualifications for economic development?

Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, does not dispute that Hoyt lacks those credentials.

Even some of Hoyt's top supporters say much of his time is devoted to "on-the-job training."

But Rudnick said Hoyt's new position stems from the governor's confidence and a career's worth of local contacts.

"His role is to be the eyes and ears of the upstate region for the governor," Rudnick said. "I'm less concerned about his technical economic development credentials than I am about his more general role, which so far has been effective."

Rudnick also said Hoyt has assumed a valuable role in advising Albany on appointments to state boards, authorities and commissions.

"He has emerged as a very important connection to the inner circle, and that's good for the region," he said.

Hoyt is not without his critics. His relations with Mayor Byron W. Brown were so strained last year that the two weren't speaking. Some can't recall how the long political feud started.

But at least they now shake hands at events, a development that observers call significant.

City Hall sources acknowledge Hoyt's new position and the need to deal with him. Still, they insist that Brown enjoys his own close relationship with the governor and does not need someone they consider a local staffer on matters of substance.

Others, like North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., a longtime political foe who twice challenged Hoyt for the Assembly, recognize Hoyt's resume contains no credentials for economic development.

Golombek calls Hoyt's new post a "political payback that ends up to the detriment of Buffalo and the region."

"It's not sour grapes," Golombek said. "It's just been the whole problem around here for 40, 50, 60 maybe 100 years. We need to break that mold."

>A long relationship

Zemsky, however, is happy to rely on Hoyt's abilities and long relationship with the governor.

"It's fair to say we've got an extraordinary governor. That's rare," Zemsky said. "He has an extraordinary interest in Western New York, and that's an opportunity that comes around once in a lifetime.

"When someone puts trust in you like that, you have a tremendous desire to succeed," he added.

Former colleagues like Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger also believe Hoyt's new role naturally builds on his years in Albany. The Kenmore Democrat likes Cuomo's regional approach, but also is watching to see the results.

"I think Sam is learning quickly and growing into the job," he said.

Hoyt dismisses any thought that his new post stems from his long support for Cuomo.

He points to Assembly accomplishments such as the historic tax credits bill allowing restoration of the Hotel Lafayette and other upstate landmarks, "smart growth" legislation, a land-bank bill that helps cities like Buffalo deal with abandoned homes, and same-sex marriage legalization.

All of this, Hoyt said, plus his ability to serve as a liaison between the area and the governor, justifies his big salary and fancy office.

"I may not be the guy who sits at the table with a balance sheet and does in-depth analysis of a company's assets and liabilities," he said. "We have professionals who do that.

"But I bring a certain stability through 19 years in the Assembly and the ability to bring people together," he added. "I have the confidence of the governor, which brings a certain amount of clout to any discussion about economic development."

Is his job a political reward?

"If I'm not doing my job, loyalty is insignificant to Andrew Cuomo," Hoyt said. "He wants experience and professionals who are going to deliver on a very ambitious and aggressive agenda."

He also says area residents should be heartened by Cuomo's focus on the area that has moved beyond the "occasional bone" thrown Buffalo's way.

"It used to be 'We'll allow you to have casinos, or we'll give you money for an Adelphia Building or for Bass Pro,' " Hoyt said. "This guy is determined like nobody I've ever seen to be the catalyst for dramatic change in Buffalo and Western New York."

>A shift in positions

But the new economic development official has been forced to change some of his positions from his days as an assemblyman.

The governor's office had to authorize an interview for this story, a far cry from when local reporters dubbed the assemblyman "Hollywood Hoyt."

He formerly opposed casino gambling. Now, it's Cuomo administration policy to pursue gambling as a business.

In the Assembly, Hoyt sided with West Side neighbors whose homes were targeted for Peace Bridge expansion. Now he announces state efforts to acquire the properties.

Hoyt's politics also have suddenly changed. He was formerly an opponent of the mayor and a supporter of Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan. Now he must recognize that Brown is a key Cuomo ally and that gubernatorial favor hardly rests upon Lenihan.

"The past is the past," Hoyt said. "My boss considers Byron Brown a partner in everything he does with regard to Buffalo, and I have no difficulty whatsoever embracing that."

What about his relationship with Lenihan, whom Cuomo operatives tried to remove last year?

"We're not enemies. We don't talk as much as we used to," he said. "But I'm not in elective office any more either."

Hoyt knows he must prove his mettle to the political foes he collected along the way as well as to taxpayers. He views Assembly sanctions for his intern transgression as history, adding that he has settled that matter with his family.

While the Assembly forbade him to employ interns in his office after his affair was revealed, he said no interns now work in his Buffalo office -- though they may in the future.

Now he is focused on the governor's goals -- including a $1 billion aid package he calls "very real." The goals will be met by an aggressive governor who demands it, Hoyt said.

"It's OK for people to be skeptical," he said. "Let's just see how we do."

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com