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Cuomo’s many WNY visits seen as prelude to 2014 campaign

The quip uttered during the introduction of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said a lot about his frequent appearances in Buffalo and Western New York in recent months.

“You’ve been here so often I almost think it’s time for you to get a place here,” Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Dottie Gallagher-Cohen said Wednesday as she welcomed the governor on his fifth visit to the area in July, and his ninth since mid-June.

It’s no coincidence that Cuomo revels in bringing what he hopes is good news to Western New York, political observers say. It is the only region in the state where voters rejected him in the 2010 election, and a re-election season is just a year away.

“This governor wants to win as much of this state as he can and will not cede anything to anyone,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Manhattan political consultant who has studied upstate voting patterns for years. “He does not want to lose those nine western counties again.”

In addition, as Cuomo unveiled Wednesday for the second time in a month the news that the state’s bitter casino dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians was over, speculation intensified about a future presidential candidacy.

The Washington Post recently ranked Cuomo third on a list of potential Democratic candidates for president in 2016, behind fellow New Yorker Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden.

Whether he is making his case for higher office or simply trying to show that he is paying attention to Western New York, the governor’s frequent flier program to the region is getting notice locally.

“The work you have done here has truly helped save our city,” Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said to Cuomo in Niagara Falls, after Seneca President Barry Snyder presented Cuomo a ceremonial check for $349 million to end the casino revenue-sharing deadlock. “I give the governor credit for truly being a Western New York governor and focusing on our region like no governor in modern history.”

Later in the morning, Cuomo was in Buffalo, presenting a ceremonial check to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, before a crowd of 100 guests at First Niagara Center. And again a Democratic mayor heaped praise on the governor.

“He has been a great friend to Buffalo and this region like no other governor,” Brown said.

A spike in local jaunts

Cuomo aides insisted his forays into Western New York should not be considered unusual, noting he has picked up the pace of visits all around the state – 106 trips so far this year.

Matthew Wing, a spokesman for Cuomo, said, “What’s interesting is that The Buffalo News thinks its newsworthy when Western New York actually gets the representation it deserves.”

But Cuomo’s local jaunts have spiked over the past 10 weeks, beginning with a May 22 trip to Buffalo.

In June, he visited Erie County or Niagara County four times, compared with no visits in the same month last year.

While here, he has touted driver safety measures, anti-corruption efforts, economic development and, in Lockport, flood recovery. In contrast, during June of 2011 Cuomo made no visits to Western New York, although he did come on three occasions in July that year.

A snapshot of July 2013 tells the story.

Last month, Cuomo’s public calendar listed 16 days when he visited New York City or the New York City “area,” which can mean his Westchester County home or somewhere else downstate.

He was in upstate communities, not including Albany, on 12 days.

In contrast, in July 2012, he spent 28 days solely in New York City or the nearby suburbs and just one day visiting an upstate community.

While touring here, Cuomo emphasizes the positive role of state government for the area, such as the oversized ceremonial checks he presented Wednesday to Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca as part of the casino settlement.

‘A new spirit’ in region

Previous initiatives he has touted on his local tours included his “Billion for Buffalo” program, wrapping up a new lease for the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium and an expanded Peace Bridge plaza, although that followed a bitter dispute with Canada over the pace of development on the span’s Buffalo end.

Even if his Canadian critics claim he “started a fire to put it out,” the governor points to the international agreement and the “new spirit” in the region.

“That’s what the Peace Bridge was all about,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “Stop the lack of progress; insist on changing the trajectory.”

During a July 2 appearance at the University at Buffalo Law School, the governor seemed to summarize his Western New York approach.

“Look at the Peace Bridge, look at UB 2020, look at what the Economic Development Council is doing,” he said. “There are cranes in the sky; they’re actually building once again in Buffalo. You can do great, great things. Government is not the enemy.”

That positive campaign may give him an advantage next year.

Sheinkopf, the Manhattan political consultant, noted that Erie County usually picks a winner in gubernatorial elections.

“He knows that,” Sheinkopf said of Cuomo. “If you win Erie County, you have a higher probability of winning the entire state. That’s our history.”

While Cuomo almost always deflects any questions about his political ambitions, the possibility of a future presidential run is now part of the national dialogue.

Any national campaign would only be strengthened by a clean sweep across the state when he seeks re-election next year, Sheinkopf said.

“It will pay him long-term dividends,” the consultant said. “It universalizes him, and gives his time in office greater credibility.”

Thorny questions

Still, questions about his use of state aircraft for the purpose of discussing the Seneca settlement again surfaced Wednesday.

A reporter asked the governor why he was using taxpayer dollars on a flight to formalize announcements he made weeks ago.

“Why does your station pay you to come up here?” Cuomo responded.

“To ask you that question,” the reporter said.

“Because it’s your job,” Cuomo said. “This is my job.

“It’s nice of you to say that the people of Salamanca, or Buffalo, or Niagara Falls don’t deserve to see the governor,” Cuomo said curtly. “But that’s not your choice to make.”

The Cuomo administration declined a Buffalo News request to provide specific dollar costs of his trips, including the per hour time it costs for the State Police to fly him.

While his frequent trips to Western New York prop up the governor’s image, taxpayers foot the bill.

The trips also involve staff time for advance work, visuals (often in the form of a PowerPoint presentation he likes to use to make his points) or the use of a State Police Beechcraft Super King Air twin turboprop airplane.

Early Wednesday morning, the plane went from its Albany International Airport hangar to Westchester County Airport to pick up Cuomo near his home before heading to Niagara Falls International Airport, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service.

It then traveled to Olean Municipal Airport for the Southern Tier event before heading off to LaGuardia International in New York City.

Administration officials said the state’s aircraft are purchased and maintained by the State Police, which also assumes operational and maintenance costs, plus salaries of pilots and other personnel responsible for maintenance and operations. Only fuel, they point out, constitutes additional costs to the state.

But Carl P. Paladino, the Republican-Conservative who won New York’s nine western counties in 2010, notes that his erstwhile opponent’s burst of upstate activity follows a significant drop in the polls after he championed a strict new gun-control law.

After Cuomo embraced many conservative principles for two years, Paladino claimed, voters are now “finding out he is really phony and hollow.”

While reiterating many of the themes of his 2010 campaign against Cuomo, Paladino questioned the effectiveness of the “Billion for Buffalo” promise that has since become a regular part of the governor’s Western New York discussion.

“Really? What have we seen?” he asked. “How about using part of that billion to pay off the bonds of these communities that are struggling right now, then they could lower taxes.

“It’s a little early to be campaigning,” he added. “It’s all photo opportunities that don’t do anything for people.”

In addition, a Buffalo News analysis of the casino deal with the Senecas showed that it was at best a wash for the state, as the Senecas kept more than $200 million they owed the state.

On unemployment, one of the biggest issues facing this region, administration officials point to a drop in Western New York joblessness from 9.1 percent to 7.4 percent during Cuomo’s tenure.

They also defend the Buffalo Billion program, even if they now say they will spend the money over 10 years rather than five. The governor has said the money could be spent even faster than five years if the right projects are found.

Many irons in the fire

Howard A. Zemsky, a Buffalo businessman who has given both money to Cuomo’s campaign and time to his policies as co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, said that about $75 million of the $1 billion is earmarked and that he expects the demand to catch up to the allocated funds – likely in 2014.

“The amount of irons in the fire is considerable,” Zemsky said, adding that Cuomo should be lauded for all the attention he pays to the region.

“I would describe this governor’s focus on upstate and Western New York in particular as unprecedented in the last several decades,” he said. “Specific announcements are bringing him to town, but there’s a broad message just being in town – that being that Western New York is one of the top three or four priorities of this administration. Being physically present is an important message.”

A skeptical business community, long accustomed to unfulfilled promises of some governors to turn around the region’s economy, is increasingly warm toward Cuomo, Zemsky said.

As for 2014 re-election political benefits, Zemsky said, “I would like to think and would hope that his ever-presence here and his priorities will be enthusiastically supported.”

WNY Frequent Flier Club / Trips to Western New York by Governor Cuomo since June 1

June 12: Amherst, Tax-free university development plan.

June 13: Niagara Falls, Seneca Nation casino deal.

June 24: Buffalo, Tax-free university development plan.

June 26: Buffalo, Peace Bridge announcement.

July 3: Amherst, State anti-corruption plan.

July 9: Buffalo, Driver enforcement measures.

July 10: Jamestown, Tax-free university development plan.

July 23: Lockport, Flood response.

July 31: Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Salamanca, Seneca Nation casino deal.

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