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Schumer, Higgins use their ample clout to sweeten KeyCorp-First Niagara deal

This is what government representation is about. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, have negotiated a valuable agreement with KeyCorp that makes its proposed merger with First Niagara Financial Group a much better deal for Western New York. The two legislators did a first-rate job, though it is also fair to say, a job that is in keeping with how they have routinely approached their important government roles.

It is neither coincidence nor surprise that these two men, although committed Democrats, understand the need to work with their Republican peers. Ideologues can prevent action, but negotiators make it happen. That’s what they did here, and as valuable as Higgins is to the region, credit goes especially to Schumer. He is already one of the nation’s most influential Democrats and, if the party wins control of the Senate in November, is poised to become the chamber’s majority leader.

And while KeyCorp was obviously acting in its own self-interest – as was its obligation – its commitment to be a good corporate citizen in Western New York is, itself, worthy of praise. It was willing to put that promise into writing.

The bank’s goal was to eliminate government roadblocks to its merger with First Niagara. Schumer’s and Higgins’ priority was to ensure that any deal served, as best as possible, the interests of Western New York, through job protection, job growth and lending that produces economic growth. Everyone succeeded.

Most immediately, the real fear of significant job losses has been eased. While the agreement allows for a maximum of 250 layoffs, that’s far less damaging than the 2,000 that were possible. That, alone, would have been a great achievement, but it was just the beginning.

The bank has agreed to add at least 500 to 600 jobs in upstate New York through 2018, with the likelihood of an additional 300 to 400 jobs in the two years after that. Those jobs are outgrowths of the bank’s additional agreement to create a regional headquarters in Buffalo and to move three business lines here.

In the end, it means that the bank will have at least 6,117 employees – the same number of employees in upstate New York as the two banks combined have today. Even then, Schumer and Higgins said they expect the bank will ultimately employ an even greater number than that.

And, bringing federal influence to a problem recently addressed by the New York State Legislature, Higgins won an agreement for Key to take the lead in dealing with “zombie” properties in Western New York. Those are properties that owners have abandoned but on which banks have not completed foreclosure, usually in an effort to avoid maintenance costs. In particular, Key committed to respond quickly to legitimate offers for blighted or vacant housing that it acquired through foreclosure. Key also agreed to maintain all the vacant or blighted properties that it owns.

All in all, Schumer and Higgins said they were able to negotiate a stronger deal than they had anticipated. That’s a reflection of their commitment, skill and clout, of Key’s determination to win approval of the merger – opposition from Schumer and Higgins could have made that much more difficult – and of the bank’s interest in being a good corporate citizen.

Schumer has been a better friend to Western New York – and all of upstate – than many observers expected when the former congressman from Brooklyn first won the office in 1998. He immediately understood that his job was to represent all of New York, including sections that are more conservative than the typical downstate Democrat. His enormous political skills have served the region well and could be even more valuable starting in January.

Higgins also has been a tough negotiator, relentlessly focused on producing results for Western New York. It was because of his tough-minded approach that the New York Power Authority coughed up the money that led to the creation of the transformational Canalside district on Buffalo’s Inner Harbor, for example.

This looks more and more like a deal that Western New York should endorse, as the Federal Reserve did last week. There is no doubt that, with First Niagara’s vulnerability, things were going to change. With this agreement, they are changing in a way that can only be called hopeful.