By Robert J. McCarthy
NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER
Updated: February 12, 2010, 7:18 am /
Published: February 12, 2010, 12:30 am
The expected Democratic primary for U. S. Senate has suddenly morphed into a contest over who has visited cities like Buffalo and Syracuse the most — former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. or incumbent Kirsten E. Gillibrand.
And though it may seem trivial, familiarity with upstate and its economic woes is looming as a central theme between an appointed senator still unfamiliar to many voters and a Tennessean striving to negate the "carpetbagger" label.
As a result, Ford's swing through Buffalo on Thursday and Gillibrand's arrival today for Flight 3407 memorial services take on added significance as both work to establish themselves with an electorate not yet engaged in an already sizzling contest.
"We need to be candid about the strength of candidates," Ford said during an interview in Gigi's Restaurant on East Ferry Street. "This is about someone who's been in office only a year and visited Syracuse twice, or who has not visited with officials in the big cities across the state. That's what I hear over and over again."
He said he has learned much about the state since beginning his exploratory campaign, stressing that creating jobs and lowering taxes offer the best economic development plan for a region he recognizes as foundering. While he made no promises of creating 250,000 jobs as did Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000, Ford still presented a plan he said will lead to at least some degree of economic revitalization.
The plan includes ensuring that "no harm is done" by any federal legislation that affects New Yorkers; redirecting federal stimulus money into programs that local entities such as the New York Conference of Mayors have identified as job creators; a program similar to Cash for Clunkers that would send each American a $500 "credit card" to be invested in green technology for jobs or business; and cutting payroll taxes to stimulate spending.
"I think [Gillibrand] stands a great chance of losing in November," he said, "which is why I'm giving a great deal of thought about this race."
But Gillibrand, a Columbia County resident who political observers say has been forced to focus on New York City and its tremendous concentration of Democratic voters, is back in Buffalo today. After participating in the Flight 3407 services, she is slated to meet with Mayor Byron W. Brown in City Hall, addressing at least one mayoral complaint that she has paid scant attention to Buffalo.
Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin, meanwhile, said the senator has worked hard to become a presence everywhere in New York since her appointment in early 2009. He issued a statement calling attention to Ford's Wall Street background.
"Merrill Lynch Vice Chairman Harold Ford Jr. has gotten his facts wrong again," Caplin said.
"Not only has Sen. Gillibrand visited all 62 counties in the state, she has held over 20 events in Western New York and over a dozen in Central New York alone."