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Hochul listens; Schumer speaks out; Lawmakers press different issues

Newly elected Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul held her first local meeting with constituents Wednesday and heard plenty about what was on their minds in light of the nation's financial mess.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, meanwhile, came to town to talk about what was on his mind: fake driver's licenses that the Chinese are producing for underage drinkers.

The two federal lawmakers followed two very different agendas.

From the start of Hochul's "Congress on Your Corner" session in the Lockport Municipal Building, the 20 or so people who attended wanted to talk about fixing the economy, creating jobs and dealing with the stinging aftermath of the federal debt crisis.

Schumer attracted a horde of photographers and television cameras to the Chippewa entertainment district, where he spoke for several minutes about the fake IDs. He eventually got around to discussing the economy because reporters insisted on it with their questions.

Unlike Schumer's well-orchestrated media event, only two reporters and a cable news camerawoman covered Hochul's gathering, where the congresswoman encountered plenty of anger and frustration from random Western New Yorkers.

"Prosecute them and show no mercy," Linda Knuutila of Pendleton said in urging Hochul to go after "waste and fraud" in the federal budget, particularly in defense and entitlement programs.

Les Huth of Lockport expressed disgust over major federal bailouts of corporations that have demonstrated little regard for their workers.

"They want you [the federal government] to help them out, but when they're making profits, they don't want to know you [the workers]," said Huth, a General Motors retiree who lost his company-paid health care and most of his life insurance.

Other residents said they were outraged over the billions of dollars spent to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hochul shared in their frustration.

"I firmly believe our spending is out of control," said Hochul, D-Amherst. "One afternoon, I voted against $7 billion in funds for Pakistan. I'm sorry, but if you have $7 billion to throw around, I'll take it in the 26th District."

Her comment brought a round of applause.

Question on gridlock

Others at Hochul's session expressed deep concern that senior citizens and the middle class will bear the brunt of the fallout from the recent economic turmoil, while corporations prosper.

But the first question Hochul was asked focused on Washington's gridlock.

"Can Democrats and Republicans work together?" Elizabeth Storch of Middleport inquired.

The congresswoman said she was optimistic but could speak only for herself.

"I'm going to find like-minded people and work with them," she said.

Reflecting on the recent congressional battle over raising the debt ceiling, Hochul said: "We can't do this again."

The congressional stalemate drained investor confidence to the point where stocks are collapsing and the retirement accounts of Americans are dwindling, she said.

"I was at a diner in the district and was told by someone that they're not sure if they can retire," Hochul said. "Congress inflicted a disaster on the American people. We no longer have a triple A credit rating. That's Standard & Poor's opinion, but it has had an impact."

Hochul called for voting out legislators unwilling solve the nation's fiscal problems.

"You have the power of the polls. Say goodbye to them; you're out of here."

Two hours earlier at Delaware Avenue and West Chippewa Street, Schumer at first aimed his ire not at uncompromising politicians, but at Chinese schemers who, he said, are peddling fake IDs to young Americans.

The theme may seem to be a bit narrow compared with a stock market meltdown and economic stagnation. But it's all of a piece for Schumer, who, for years, has held weekly reporter conference calls and regular news media events on seemingly minor issues while working behind the scenes as one of the Senate's most influential members on economics and finance.

But his latest small-bore issue didn't exactly resonate in Buffalo. A check with bars on Chippewa and with police on area college campuses found that the Chinese-made fake IDs do not pose a widespread problem in this area.

Still, Schumer said young people are buying the fake IDs over the Internet by the thousands and increasing the chances for more alcohol-related tragedies on and off the road.

>Realistic fakes

The phony driver's licenses -- complete with holograms, water marks and magnetic strips -- are so realistic that detecting the counterfeits is almost impossible.

Schumer called on Western Union, MoneyGram and PayPal to cooperate with U.S. Homeland Security to halt the purchases made by wiring cash to the companies in China.

"Frankly we need to strangle their source of cash," he said.

The many reporters at the event, however, seemed comparatively uninterested in the topic, focusing instead on the economy -- and the aftershock of Washington's near-inability to reach a deal raising the debt ceiling limit

When asked, the New York Democrat wasted no time blaming his congressional colleagues for all the trouble.

"You can't say you don't care if we default. You can't use the threat of default," he said in alluding to the toll it has taken on the stock market. "You can't stay in your corners, Democrats and Republicans, you need to meet in the middle."

>Call for job creation

When he was asked if Congress is even capable of fixing the economy in light of the fact that President Obama's stimulus bill -- which spent billions of taxpayer dollars -- has failed to substantially reduce unemployment, he pointed out that only a quarter of those funds went to job creation.

"We have to go back and look at what worked and what didn't work," he said.

Schumer proposed an "infrastructure bank" that would create construction jobs to rebuild roads and the nation's aging power grid, explaining that new construction jobs have traditionally paved the path out of financial downturns.

"The focus of Congress has to shift to job creation when we come back from recess."

But for Wednesday, at least, Schumer's focus was on fake driver's licenses, and he said he had no problem addressing that important topic while also focusing on the economy.

"I have a lot of energy," he said.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com