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How's Hillary doing? Clinton's efforts upstate must contend with larger economic woes, while she focuses on gradual progress

During the 1990s boom, residents of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, and the many smaller cities and towns in between, watched just about every other part of the country reap the benefits -- however short-lived they turned out to be -- of the high-tech economy, venture capitalism, the dot-com era and all the other glitzy alternatives to manufacturing.

If there's any grim consolation to the fact that manufacturing in upstate New York was nose-diving then and has continued to tank since then -- as illustrated by Delphi's and Kodak's announcements earlier this year to cut jobs or wages -- it's that the rest of the country is finally catching up, although in ways that you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy. Suffice it to say that the economic picture of upstate New York wasn't rosy in the mid-1990s, and it's not so great now, a decade later.

Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped into this bleak scenario in the summer of 1999. She was First Lady and a senatorial candidate about to set off on a "listening tour" of New York's 62 counties. She concentrated upstate, zig-zagging across the North Country so often that reporters trying to follow her looked like spectators at a tennis tournament trying to follow the ball.

She worked hard, she did her homework, she won over the skeptics and she carried parts of upstate and Western New York that hadn't voted Democratic in anyone's memory.

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, developed a trademark expression early in his first term that he would spring upon reporters and his fellow New Yorkers at every opportunity: "How'm I doing?" With Clinton nearly through her first term in the Senate, exuding confidence, virtually guaranteed re-election and constantly dogged by speculation about her presidential ambitions, it is time to ask, "How's she doing?"

This is a question that has long-range implications -- for New Yorkers if Clinton is re-elected and fulfills a second Senate term, be it by choice or the fates -- for the country as a whole if she is elected president. A president's beliefs are formed by the jobs that the aspiring president did along the way. Governors and senators don't magically remake themselves once they get to the White House.

Instead, they rely on techniques that worked in lesser positions. Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter maintained his Sunday school teacher belief that blunt talking to the American public would sell painful plans. Former Texas Gov. George W. Bush had trusted staff who saw him through the early days, such as Karen Hughes and Karl Rove.

So what have we seen of Clinton so far, and what might we expect of her in another term as New York's junior senator, or, in what many still consider a very long shot, her first term as president?

>Projects tailored to area

She made campaign promises that she would help create 200,000 jobs in upstate New York, but most critics don't appear to take that seriously anymore. Except Ryan Moses, executive director of the New York State Republican Committee, who said: "For five years, Mrs. Clinton has been missing in action when it comes to the upstate economy. She has failed miserably on her pledge to create 200,000 jobs. Now, as election time draws near, she is once again pretending to be helping the upstate economy. I think it speaks to her failure to deliver on her promise."

Asked if he thought Clinton's GOP opponent, Rick Lazio, could have created 200,000 jobs, he said: "I know Rick Lazio wouldn't have made a promise that he couldn't keep or wouldn't work hard to keep. The voters of upstate New York want to hear answers, not broken promises."

Clinton sees it more favorably. "I have been extremely encouraged by the progress that we have made together in upstate New York," she said last week. "We've made critical investments in new technologies; we've created new opportunities for our farming communities; we've supported our entrepreneurs and our small businesses; we've connected upstate businesses with downstate investors, and we've helped encourage tourism to this beautiful and historic part of our state. And we did this in the face of a sagging national economy."

As a senator, Clinton settled into a pattern of quietly concentrating on two areas: lots of small entrepreneurial projects tailored to individual areas of the North Country and Western New York, and a handful of splashier, more visible medical/technical projects that many hope will become modern replacements for the region's dying manufacturing base.

These are the sorts of projects that don't make headlines outside their areas but have won over skeptics even in conservative, heavily Republican parts of the state.

"She's one of the few elected officials who asks what you need, and I find that very refreshing," said Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. "I think she realizes there is no one-size-fits-everything in the upstate New York economy. Every elected official would like to re-create Bethlehem Steel, but that just doesn't exist anymore."

Clinton's showcase effort in Buffalo is the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is undergoing a 400,000-square-foot, $180 million expansion on its 100-acre campus. Clinton, along with Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, has helped secure about $30 million in federal funding for the expansion of the campus, for research and for improvements in streets and neighborhoods around the hospitals.

"I give her a lot of credit," said Matthew Enstice, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. "She's really committed to the life sciences, and that's really important, because in Buffalo, we're really committed to building our economy around the life sciences."

Enstice doesn't worry about what will happen to the medical campus project if Clinton never completes her second term in the Senate or gets so distracted by national ambitions that her visits to Western New York become a distant memory. Like Masiello, he said that Clinton listened to what planners and thinkers in Buffalo wanted to do, and then helped them do it. So even if she never attends another ribbon cutting on the East Side, the projects she patronized during her first term are likely to carry on under their own volition.

"This is not a silver bullet; this is not a 'one shot, we're done,' " Enstice said of the expansion at the medical campus. "This is long-term effort. We keep saying our life sciences is our new economy. The groundwork has been laid."

>The upstate dilemma

The term "upstate New York" is so broad as to be almost useless in grasping the myriad issues, cultures and distinctions in the nearly 300 miles between Albany, Erie County and beyond. Upstate New York is the Adirondack Mountains, where the median annual income in some counties is $26,120 and employment all but shuts down in the winter. Upstate New York is the tundra-like prairie around Watertown, where a housing shortage created by the soldiers at Fort Drum threatens the stability of lifelong residents, and where many of those same soldiers' families are straining the city's social services as they struggle to survive on barely livable wages.

Upstate New York is also Rochester, a proud and beautiful old city where -- much like Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Detroit -- two and three generations of the same family made a very decent living at Kodak-like companies, but know that those days are gone.

And upstate is Western New York, a region that was once the manufacturing jewel of the state but now has more in common with Ohio than Manhattan. Some of our own state legislators haven't yet grasped the fact that New York State is like two countries jammed into one border, so people can hardly be blamed for having limited expectations about Clinton.

Yet she won over supporters in even hard-core Republican areas, such as St. Lawrence County. This part of the state didn't have fiber optic cable or high-speed Internet access until two years ago, a liability that kept small businesses from investing in the region, despite the presence of three respected colleges: St. Lawrence University and the SUNY campuses at Potsdam and Canton.

Now, 450 miles of fiber optic cable have been strung through St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties. Local officials credit Clinton and State Sen. Jim Wright, R-Watertown, with getting the funding, equipment and expertise to get the project moving.

Karen St. Hillaire, executive director of the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, especially praises Clinton for a trip to Ireland in 2003 in which Clinton and five St. Lawrence region representatives visited an Irish town in the start-up phase of high-speed Internet cabling that was, in many ways, comparable to the North Country towns in New York.

Nearly three years later, Internet access in the North Country communities has been the driving force behind the Northern Adirondack Trading Cooperative, a project hatched by Clinton's office to connect North Country craftspeople with customers through E-Bay. The project started with fewer than two dozen businesses; today it has 60, St. Hillaire said. One of the cooperative members who makes handcrafted fly-fishing rods started out in the back of a shop. Last year, he sold $70,000 worth of equipment through E-Bay.

>What's next?

Given this fairly positive report card on her first term, what lies ahead for Clinton and upstate New York?

She says it up front: "Yes, more work remains, but we have proven that when we work together, we can promote jobs and move the economy forward. We must help each region deal with their individual challenges while at the same time making sure that we do everything we can to invest in the future of upstate New York."

But even those who credit her for her attention to Buffalo's medical campus expansion wonder how much she can do, over the long haul, for the entire vast upstate region.

"I'm not so sure how much in upstate New York any single member of Congress can do, because most of the changes and reforms needed are a state issue, not a federal issue," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, an economic development group of local and regional businesses.

Like others who have followed Clinton's efforts in Buffalo, Rudnick gives generous credit to Reynolds, Clinton and Sen. Charles E. Schumer for generating millions of dollars for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. "For us, that's the largest, most strategically important contribution she's made to economic development," he said. "It's also very targeted. The kind of campaign platform when she first ran was much more broad-based improvements."

As she seeks a second term, the question of whether she will or will not run for president will become more of a national focus, something that Rudnick worries may lessen her attention to upstate and Western New York. (Clinton's staff says she still travels to upstate communities at least once every couple of weeks.)

But if she does launch a national campaign, and upstate New York lags in her attention span, she will leave behind a number of small communities where the residents still get a thrill out of seeing a U.S. senator so often.

"Most everyone was quite skeptical in the rural areas that she would really follow through," said John Byrne, a law student at the University at Buffalo and the president of the Young Democratic Rural Conference. "When she would pass through some of these areas that never expected to see a U.S. senator -- and, at that time, a First Lady -- she knew what was going on. We've seen her over and over and over again."

And Byrne scoffs at the critics who say it's all part of a plan by Clinton to look good for a national race, to get her practice shaking farmers' hands in Iowa by learning to talk about dairy cows in Norfolk and Canton. "Really, the Watertown Times and Channel 7 News are not going to get you elected president," Byrne said.

Darryl McGrath, a former Buffalo News and Boston Globe reporter, writes about upstate from her home in Albany.

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