Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer says that anyone driving across upstate New York would see a region of economic devastation -- much like Appalachia.
In a campaign stop last week in Manhattan, Spitzer said: "If you drive from Schenectady to Niagara Falls, you'll see an economy that is devastated. It looks like Appalachia. This is not the New York we dream of."
In the days since, the well-oiled Democratic gubernatorial campaign has been fending off criticism from a growing chorus of Republicans who say the Manhattan resident offended the region.
But a leading business group has come to Spitzer's defense, and even a top Republican. Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno of Rensselaer County, while stopping short of agreeing with Spitzer's comparison, said the attorney general was correct to paint a bleak picture of the upstate economy.
In fact, one business group official privately noted that Appalachia might be insulted by the comparison to upstate New York, given that region's relatively better economic health in recent years compared with upstate's continuing problems.
In a session with reporters, Bruno, the most influential upstate Republican in the Legislature, said when asked about the Spitzer comment, "I understand what he's saying. There are real pockets of poverty throughout the state."
Bruno said parts of upstate "desperately need help."
But other Republicans call it a slip-up by an otherwise careful politician that will further cement what they say are Spitzer's Manhattan roots.
They liken it to what then-New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch did in his failed campaign for governor in 1982 when he talked of upstaters "wasting time in a pickup truck when you have to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit."
>Site of speech is faulted
Democrats and some business groups say Spitzer's characterizations about the state of the economy in New York are accurate and are merely a sore spot for a state government led by a Republican governor for 12 years.
Gov. George E. Pataki, who has had to defend his administration's attempt to turn around the upstate economy over the years, on Tuesday lashed out at Spitzer's comparison.
While noting some problem areas upstate, Pataki said, "Comparing it to Appalachia is inappropriate and an insult to the hardworking people of upstate New York."
Former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, one of the Republicans running to succeed Pataki, said Spitzer chose the upper West Side of Manhattan to give the speech Sunday in which he made the comparison because it was a "safe distance" from upstate New York.
Weld said Spitzer "likened upstate to those Walker Evans photographs showing kids with rickets and missing teeth."
Rob Ryan, a spokesman for Randy A. Daniels, a former New York State secretary of state in the Pataki administration who is now running for governor, said Spitzer has his facts wrong. "To compare rural poverty in Kentucky and Tennessee to upstate New York is wrong, and it's troubling. Randy Daniels served on the federal Appalachian Regional Commission for five years and would be happy to explain the issue to Mr. Spitzer," Ryan said.
Over the years, Appalachia came to represent poverty in America. But today, large portions of Appalachia -- a region the size of the Britain that includes portions of 12 states from the deep South to its northernmost tip along southern New York State -- have recovered.
Spitzer campaign manager Ryan Toohey said Spitzer has given two major speeches on the upstate economy, including one in Syracuse on Tuesday. In a statement, Toohey said:
"Some are now suggesting that this emphasis is unwarranted and that comparing upstate New York's economic plight to other parts of the country is somehow insulting. They are unwilling to face the fact that other states and regions have prospered while upstate New York has not. These politicians are part of the problem. Only by facing the crisis can we begin to repair the damage caused by decades of neglect."
"The real insult to New Yorkers is denying that serious problems exist," Toohey added.
Members of the Spitzer campaign rushed out statistics they said were from the U.S. Census Bureau showing, for instance, that Appalachia's population rose by 12 percent from 1990 to 2004, while the figure for upstate grew by only 1 percent.
The campaign noted that 370,000 people age 20 to 34 left upstate in that period. It added that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of job growth upstate from 1996 to the start of 2006 was lower than in any of the 12 Appalachian states.
Matthew McGuire, a spokesman for the Business Council of New York State, said upstate's rate of job growth from 1990 to 2005 was 4.2 percent, compared with 21.9 percent for the nation.
"There's a lot of fussing about whether his metaphor is apt, but no one can seriously question the underlying economic realities if they have seen the job-growth numbers and compared them to other states," McGuire said.
He added that the political storm over the Appalachia comment "is a tempest in a teapot'' over a serious economic issue. "The attorney general has focused attention on a critical issue and we're glad he did because we're concerned about it, too,'' McGuire said.
Remaining out of the controversy Tuesday was Thomas R. Suozzi, the sole Democratic challenger to Spitzer in the governor's race. Suozzi's spokeswoman said the former Nassau County executive would have nothing to say about the Spitzer remark.
In Syracuse on Tuesday, Spitzer did not back away from his comparison. The Associated Press reported that during a tour of a warehouse, Spitzer said, "I would say to those who don't like the metaphor: This is reality."