- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

HERKIMER, N.Y. "Welcome to Eastern Herkimer, a Growing Community."

That's the message on a weathered green sign that greets motorists arriving in Herkimer from the east.

What the message lacks in eloquence is made up for in spirit, fierce enough to prompt locals to dispute the claim of Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton that upstate New York is badly in need of a fix.

Upstate New York is a key battleground in the hotly contested Senate race, where the latest polls show Long Island's Rep. Rick Lazio gaining strength against Mrs. Clinton.

In fact, a Zogby International tracking poll published yesterday had Mr. Lazio leading the first lady 48 percent to 43 percent, still within the margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, but startling nonetheless.

Two other new polls from Quinnipiac University and Marist College have Mrs. Clinton narrowly leading Mr. Lazio, but the Quinnipiac poll showed the first lady's support slipping to 47 percent from 50 percent two weeks earlier. Some attribute Mrs. Clinton's faltering numbers to controversy over her campaign donations from Muslim sources.

Upstate communities like Herkimer are the bulwark of Mr. Lazio's support. The Zogby poll shows the Republican leads Mrs. Clinton 50 percent to 32 percent in upstate New York, compared to an advantage of 46 percent to 40 percent for Lazio in suburban New York and Mrs. Clinton's lead of 60 percent to 28 percent in New York City.

No one here disputes the fact that Herkimer both the village of 7,000 and the 260-square-mile county has seen better days, when manufacturing furniture, textiles and bicycles was big business. The town has lost residents over the past decade, but residents express resentment of politicians who say so.

"We now have a tremendous business climate," said Jim Wallace, Herkimer County administrator. "I get concerned when people poor-mouth us. And when people hear something like that, they usually have a lack of trust that somebody wants to help us."

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Lazio have clashed on the state of upstate. The first lady promises a plan she says will create 200,000 jobs in the region, while Mr. Lazio says the upstate economy has "turned the corner."

But Mr. Lazio has a campaign ad in which he is portrayed sitting in a coffee shop saying he, too, has a "plan for upstate to create thousands of jobs."

That message, too, irritates Rich Marocco, a native of Little Falls, the only place to be officially called a city in Herkimer County.

"Neither one will do anything for upstate," said Mr. Marocco, 40, who owns a pizza restaurant in his hometown. He says he will vote for Mr. Lazio, but adds, "We need the state of New York to help, but they can't do anything in Washington."

The county has 64,000 residents and a work force of 22,000. Buildings are now being constructed on speculation, an indicator county and town leaders believe predictions of coming prosperity will materialize.

Valerie Duncan and her husband, Gordon, moved from San Jose, Calif., to the village of Herkimer seven years ago when unemployment here was around 10 percent and opened the Coffee Bar.

Mrs. Duncan is a Hillary supporter, even though she isn't convinced of the first lady's proclamation of upstate poverty.

"I think people just got used to hearing that, so now they believe it," Mrs. Duncan said.

Added Coffee Bar customer Jack Vallese: "I think [Mrs. Clinton is] just using scare tactics."

The first lady's plan would focus on areas that have experienced significant population loss in the past few years. Buffalo, for example, has lost nearly 30,000 residents.

But Mrs. Clinton's appeal seems unlikely to sway Republican strongholds like Herkimer County.

In the 1998 gubernatorial election, Gov. George E. Pataki received 13,622 votes to Democrat Peter Vallone's 2,139 in Herkimer County. The statewide totals outside New York City were not quite so pronounced, but similar: 1.8 million votes for the governor and 713,000 for Mr. Vallone.

"These are very rural areas they are social conservatives and even Reagan Democrats," said Dan Allen, a spokesman for the New York Republican Party. "They are tried-and-true Republicans."

Almost. Katherine Nichols is a one-woman Hillary army, having turned her downtown Herkimer art gallery into a county campaign headquarters for the first lady.

Undaunted by the percentages, Miss Nichols doles out Clinton yard signs, bumper stickers and fact sheets to anyone who will listen to her.

"We do need help up here," Miss Nichols said. "Most of what we have here are service jobs and minimum-wages jobs. Hillary is a world figure and she has connections that will help us."

Unemployment in the county is 3.5 percent, around the national average. A heavy burden of state business taxes has been eased over the years, with much of the credit going to Mr. Pataki.

In a speech last month in Albany, Mrs. Clinton said that one in five upstate residents "is thinking of moving away," scared off by high taxes. "It's very clear that the biggest issue facing upstate is the economy," she said.

The state's blighted areas are mostly shell-shocked downtowns, such as Buffalo's, where digging up the downtown to build a metro rail line ended up isolating businesses that never recovered.

And beyond the Barnes & Noble suburbs of Rochester and Buffalo are the perpetually empty storefronts of towns like Troy, a charming but floundering midstate city that seems to have never recovered from the post-industrial blues.

Maybe the best news of this hard-fought, highly publicized Senate race: "I think [this race] has been good for upstate no matter what the result," said Maria Oswalt from Canandaigua.

Attending an Elmira rally for the first lady, Miss Oswalt said, "Any time we can get attention away from New York City is good, because there are lots of us up here."

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