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Clinton gets an 'A' for effort, but her jobs promise remains unfulfilled

In keeping with a campaign promise to boost the upstate economy, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton helped win millions of dollars for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, teamed upstate farmers with downstate restaurants and even enlisted British Prime Minister Tony Blair in her efforts.

But there's a big part of Clinton's promise she couldn't keep.

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

The latest federal figures, though, show that upstate New York shed another 34,800 jobs in the five years between the former first lady's arrival in the Senate and January 2006.

That fact leaves Clinton with some explaining to do as she runs for re-election, two years before a possible race for the presidency.

And she explains it by saying things could have been different if Democrat Al Gore had won the 2000 presidential election -- and stayed the course her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had set.

Does she regret using that 200,000 jobs figure?

"No," she replied, "because, you know, I think if we had continued the Clinton economic policies, I believe that there would have been a significant, a greater increase in employment."

"But you play the hand you're dealt," she added during a brief interview between Senate votes last week. "And we didn't win the election, and the other side got to implement their policies, which is, you know, largely tax cuts for the rich. And that's something that . . . I've had to work around."

>Full-steam ahead

Of nearly 20 business leaders and upstate experts interviewed last week, not one criticized Clinton for a lack of effort on the upstate economy.

What criticism there is stems from that 200,000 jobs figure.

"She, more than anyone else, has worked to make the upstate economy an issue," said David Shaffer, president of the business-backed Public Policy Institute in Albany. "But am I sure glad I'm not the guy who talked her into predicting 200,000 jobs."

Key to Clinton's promise was a seven-bill package of legislation that aimed to bring broadband Internet access to rural areas, improve job training and provide tax cuts for business in areas with lagging economies.

Only two of the seven bills setting up "regional skills alliances" and incubators to aid entrepreneurs -- made it into law.

Republicans, who have controlled the Senate for most of Clinton's term, ignored the rest.

"I don't blame her," said James J. Allen, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency. "She was on the wrong side of the aisle."

While her legislative efforts lagged, Clinton shifted gears. Like Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., she initiated job-growing efforts all around the state.

In the Buffalo area, she helped win $26.4 million for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and, with her colleagues, fought to prevent the closing of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

In the Southern Tier, she won federal funding to restore commercial rail service.

And in farm country, she set up a program that boosted the sale of local upstate goods in New York City, said John Lincoln, president of the New York Farm Bureau.

>Winning support

Such efforts have won support for Clinton in surprising places.

"She's been absolutely great," said Kirk Gregg, Corning Inc.'s chief administrative officer, who lauds Clinton for pushing policies that boost the company's catalytic converter business. "She obviously had her skeptics, but she's proved them all wrong."

Tom Blasczcykiewicz was a skeptic. President of AccuMed Technologies, a Buffalo company that makes specialized fabrics, he said he voted Republican in 2000. But that was before Clinton's "New Jobs for New York" program hooked him up with a marketing consultant who is bringing AccuMed "millions" in business.

"She brought us to the big city," he said. "If she runs for president, she's got my vote."

Of course, John Spencer -- the former Yonkers mayor who is one of two Republicans campaigning to unseat Clinton -- sees things a little differently.

"She's got a lot of accounting to do," said Spencer, who promises to work for tax cuts and to partner with local officials to bolster upstate. "It appears to me that she hasn't done much to further that end."

>Roadblocks

Clinton fell short on her goal for several reasons. For one, the national economy has lagged for most of the decade, meaning that even if upstate matched the nation in job growth, it would have added only 133,500 jobs, not 200,000.

More important, the problems that many experts say have dragged upstate down for decades high local and state taxes and burdensome regulations continue unabated.

And above all, Clinton set a very ambitious goal.

"I'm really impressed with how much time and effort she puts into upstate," said Don Waldman, chairman of the department of economics at Colgate University.

But when asked about Clinton's jobs promise, Waldman said: "It was probably impossible to create that many jobs . . . Of course, politicians make all sorts of promises. And let's face it: political promises are made to get politicians elected more than anything else."

Even New Jobs for New York, Clinton's effort to team New York's venture capital and marketing might with upstate businesses, seems somewhat small-scale.

While it has held conferences on high-tech topics all across the state, New Jobs for New York has only two employees, and spent only $163,327 on programs in its first 15 months of existence.

"From a staffing point of view, it was always going to be a small effort," said Roger Altman, the former deputy treasury who heads the effort.

Clinton does have one huge advantage in the fight for jobs. As a former first lady, she has what she called "a convening power" -- an ability to bring people together -- that few can match.

For example, when a Lockheed Martin operation in Owego was bidding for a military helicopter contract in partnership with a British firm, Clinton called Blair, the British prime minister, and asked him to contact President Bush about the deal.

In turn, Blair sent Bush a note, said Greg Caires, a Lockheed Martin spokesman. Lockheed Martin got the contract and added 750 jobs.

>Getting things done

In some cases, though, it's easy to see how Clinton's work has paid off.

Four years ago, Karen St. Hilaire, president of the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, told Clinton she wished more local artisans would sell their wares on eBay. Before long, at Clinton's behest, eBay officials traveled to the North Country to teach local merchants to do just that.

Now about 60 North Country businesses are selling products through eBay, and Tim Damon of Potsdam is as happy as any of them. Profits from the sale of his fishing rods and components tripled last year.

"There's four jobs she brought here," Damon said.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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