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Clinton’s record upstate: Progress amid a promise that fell short

Once again, it’s all about upstate for Hillary Clinton, just as it was when she first ran for the U.S. Senate seat in New York 16 years ago.

Proof came in her new campaign ads – including one that features the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the other a hopscotch across upstate – and in her campaign schedule in the days leading up to the New York Democratic presidential primary April 19, which took her to Buffalo and Rochester on Friday after earlier stops in Syracuse and Albany.

It all has a coming-home-again feel to it, as Clinton proved during a 45-minute roundtable event Friday in the Jacobs Institute on the Medical Campus, where she revealed a wonkish knowledge of the region’s recent economic history.

“We dreamed a lot of dreams together, about what we could do and how we could build on all of these foundational strengths,” Clinton said of her time as a senator.

All of which raises a question.

What, exactly, did Hillary Clinton do for Buffalo and upstate during her eight years in the U.S. Senate?

The answer, as it often is with the Clintons, is complicated.

Clinton promised during her 2000 campaign to bring 200,000 jobs to upstate New York. She didn’t come close.

Party-line Republicans won’t forgive her for that. But those who worked with her at the time do, saying she played a critical role in winning money for the Medical Campus, saving the Niagara Air Reserve Station from closure and boosting farms and small businesses across the state.

Michael Pietkiewicz, who worked as a congressional aide to Republican Rep. Jack Quinn, fondly remembers working with Clinton early in her Senate career. He was director of federal relations at the University at Buffalo at the time, and he remembers traveling to Washington in the early 2000s, pitching the Medical Campus idea.

“We weren’t getting a lot of traction,” he said. “Not a lot of people believed we could get it done.”

But two people did: Sen. Hillary Clinton and then-Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence.

“She was our go-to person in the Senate,” Pietkiewicz said, and she delivered.

The Medical Campus planners asked for $25 million in federal money – and with Clinton working the Senate and Reynolds working the House, they got $27.75 million in four years.

“It was never about her,” added Matthew K. Enstice, president and CEO of the Medical Campus. “It was always: ‘What do you need me to do?’ ”

That same Clinton-Reynolds tag team proved critical again in 2005, when a federal commission proposed closing the Niagara Air Reserve Station.

And it was not what Col. W. Robin Pfeil, former vice commander of the 914th Airlift Wing at the base, was expecting.

“I’m a Republican, and I thought she was a carpetbagger when she came to New York,” Pfeil said.

But then Pfeil worked with Clinton and other members of the New York delegation to try to get the Niagara base taken off the base closure list. Pfeil came away so impressed that he did a television commercial for Clinton’s 2006 re-election campaign, just as he did for Reynolds later in the campaign.

“She was the chief cheerleader for the base, trying to make it all work,” Pfeil recalled.

She couldn’t make everything work, though.

“Hillary has a serious plan to create 200,000 new jobs upstate,” an announcer intoned in one of her 2000 campaign ads.

On the contrary, federal statistics show that overall employment fell slightly during her eight years in the Senate. And Republican leaders have not let her forget it.

“It’s a failed promise,” said Nicholas A. Langworthy, Erie County Republican chairman. “She did not deliver. She was part of a team for a few things, but there were a lot of mothers and fathers of that success.”

Voters should care about Clinton’s failed jobs promise because “past performance is indicative of future delivery,” said Langworthy, who also took Clinton to task for touting her role in bringing Artspace, a combination gallery/living space for artists, to the city.

“You’re a U.S. senator and you’re talking about Artspace?” Langworthy asked. “That’s something a city council member should be working on.”

But to those who worked with Clinton during the 2000s, what matters isn’t that she fell short of her goal of bringing 200,000 jobs to upstate New York. What matters is that she worked hard to try to achieve it, setting up a program for upstate businesses to sell their products on eBay and another for upstate farmers to sell their products to restaurants and other customers downstate.

In addition, she worked with farmers on immigration reform and trade issues, said Dean Norton, president of the Farm Bureau of New York.

“She was very proactive in beginning a dialogue with us, and she was always very supportive of us on the issues,” Norton said.

Clinton was busy being proactive again on Friday, emphasizing how vital it is to use federal money to support the research taking place on the Medical Campus. That research, she said, supports the 12,000 jobs and the more than 100 life-sciences, high-tech and other companies on the campus.

“There’s no substitute for that research,” Clinton said.

She spoke to a small but friendly crowd in the institute, which is sandwiched on one floor of a building between Kaleida Health’s Gates Vascular Institute and UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center.

Candace Johnson, president and CEO of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, credited Clinton with being an active supporter of the campus during her years in the Senate, boosting research at Roswell Park, UB and other institutions and laying the groundwork for construction there of the $267 million Oishei Children’s Hospital and UB’s $375 million Jacobs School of Medicine.

“Good things are going to happen here, and you should be proud because you were part of it,” Johnson said.

The participants discussed the importance of leveraging the resources of the Medical Campus to boost the fortunes of the wider community and of making sure women and people of color are encouraged to go into science and technology and to start their own businesses.

Afterward, Smitha James, the scientific operations manager at UB’s Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, said she was thankful she was able to get a job at the center in 2011 after her research position at Roswell Park ended.

James, speaking for herself and not the center, said she attended the event because she’s a fan of Clinton and her work as a senator bringing funding back to the region.

“She just believed in the city,” James said.

News Business Reporter Stephen T. Watson contributed to this report. email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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