Slow Upstate Economy Weakens N.Y. Republican

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The economy has been sluggish as long as anyone can remember along the Hudson River in upstate New York. And for just as long, voters have looked to Republicans to help turn things around. But this year, Republican John Sweeney faces a vigorous challenge based on the stagnant economy.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Republicans are hoping the Bush administration's economic policy will work to their advantage in upcoming elections. The economy has had 19 straight quarters of growth, but in hotly contested states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the economic outlook is weaker. And even in states like New York, pocketbook issues are what matter most.

NPR's Jim Zarroli examines the race for New York's 20th Congressional District.

Representative JOHN SWEENEY (Republican, New York): Well that makes it, you know, something that I should pay attention to.

JIM ZARROLI: On a dusty hillside near Fort Ann, New York, four-term Republican Congressman John Sweeney is touring a granite quarry. The quarry's owner, Michael Moray(ph), wants help getting visas for his immigrant workers. Like any good politician, Sweeney interrupts his host sometimes to talk about the money he's brought into the state.

Mr. MICHAEL MORAY (Quarry Owner, Fort Ann, New York): ...Fort Ann University's new parking garage across from the Bronx Mechanical Gardens.

Rep. SWEENEY: You know who got them the money?

Mr. MORAY: Was it you?

Rep. SWEENEY: Yeah.

Mr. MORAY: Great.

ZARROLI: Sweeney talks about some of the federal projects he's helped promote in New York; a port enhancement in Albany, a wind farm in the Adirondacks. Sweeney is a pro-tax cut, pro-free trade conservative, but he's also pragmatic about the upstate economy.

Rep. SWEENEY: I'm not shy about, you know, pushing the federal government in a variety of different ways, in bills, to make the upstate economy - certainly the 20th Congressional District economy - a federal priority.

ZARROLI: The economy is a kind of stealth issue in next month's mid-term elections. Rutgers University political scientist, Ross Baker, says, for all the talk about Iraq and the Foley scandal, economic concerns still drive a lot of people to the polls.

Mr. ROSS BAKER (Political Science, Rutgers University): It's pocketbook issues. It's people sitting down and saying, do I have as much disposable income as I had last year?

ZARROLI: This year the economic picture is cloudy. The economy is growing, albeit at a slowing rate. Gas prices are down but so is the housing market. The picture is worse in Rust Belt states like Michigan and Ohio, which have been hurt by the auto industry slowdown.

Conditions are almost as dire in upstate New York cities like Syracuse and Rochester. James Parrott is chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute.

Mr. JAMES PARROTT (Chief Economist, Fiscal Policy Institute): All those areas still rely on manufacturing for about 20 percent of their jobs. And they've lost about 25 percent of their manufacturing jobs since the late 1990s. That's taken a heavy toll.

ZARROLI: The 20th Congressional District has fared somewhat better. The district sprawls over parts of eastern New York, from the Hudson Valley north, almost to the Canadian border, through the resorts of the Catskills. Unemployment is low, but the jobs that are available tend to be low paying and seasonal.

Craig Wadley(ph) is a supermarket meat cutter in Glens Falls.

Mr. CRAIG WADLEY (Meat Cutter, Glens Falls, New York): I think there is probably too many retail jobs. I would like to see some tech jobs or some, you know, skilled professional jobs come into the area more, with, you know, the, you know, mills not doing so great.

ZARROLI: Wadley says many of the people he knew in high school have left the area to find work in the South and Southwest. It's a common complaint here.

Sweeney's Democratic challenger in the 20th District, Kirsten Gillibrand, says the steady erosion of the local economy is also a big concern for the voters she talks to.

Ms. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (Democratic Congressional Candidate): Our average family income in this district is $40,000 a year, and issues like gas prices, healthcare costs, and the fact that New York State pays too much in taxes - in particular property taxes - has really affected our district terribly. And so our residents are really struggling just to make ends meet.

ZARROLI: Gillibrand notes that Sweeney supported free trade PACs like CAFTA that she says have taken jobs from the region.

But whether voters will blame Sweeney for the region's economy is unclear. Marilyn Berkockley(ph), an administrative assistant, says she worries about healthcare. Still, she likes Sweeney.

Ms. MARILYN BERKOCKLEY (Administrative Assistant): My son had a minor problem with a business that he owns in the area, and he was able to go to Sweeney's office and talk to a person there. And I think that's an important thing. He's always been very available around in this area.

ZARROLI: That's exactly the way Republicans hope voters will see this year's races, as referendums on local issues and individual politicians. But Democrats say there's also broader concern about where the economy is going. The question is whether there's enough unease to tip the balance in some competitive races.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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