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Appalachian Upstate?

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Negative press just doesn't seem to stick to Eliot Spitzer.

Last week Republicans thought they'd found a weak spot when he compared Upstate New York to Appalachia.

"If you drive from Schenectady to Niagara Falls, you'll see an economy that is devastated," he said. "It looks like Appalachia. This is not the New York we dream of."

State/Monroe County Republican Party Chair Steve Minarik sent an op-ed piece to scores of papers around the state attacking Spitzer's comments.

"Appalachia ... shares little in common with the upstate that millions of hard-working New Yorkers call home," Minarik wrote, describing Appalachia as being "known for its underdevelopment, harsh coal mining practices, and widespread poverty."

"Using the term 'Appalachia' only proves that Eliot Spitzer is out of touch with Upstate New York," said Minarik.

Governor George Pataki echoed Minarik, offering this memorable quote: "Appalachia doesn't have Empire Zones."

That turned out to be the sound of an attack backfiring. Unfortunately for the gov, the media was quick to jump on the fact that, well, actually, there are Empire Zones in Appalachia. That's because 14 of New York's counties are designated Appalachian by the federal government. According to a New York Times report on the issue, the state got $2.5 million from the federal government from the Appalachian Regional Commission for those counties. (Not to mention that even if they aren't called Empire Zones, most other states, including others in Appalachia, have tax incentive programs. Or that there are serious doubts about the effectiveness of these programs.)

Both attacks appeared to gain little ground. State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno all but agreed with Spitzer. Minarik's foray into righteous indignation, an emotion more politically suited to the left, simply came across as odd. That, coupled with Pataki's embarrassing ignorance about the state he's supposed to have been governing for the past dozen years, seems to have largely deflated any angst Spitzer's comments might have aroused Upstate.

Meanwhile, Spitzer was busy spinning himself as a realist and his comments as evidence that he's the only candidate willing to face the tough facts about Upstate's economy. At a stop in Rochester last week, he called Republicans' criticism "Pollyannaish" and "a disavowal of reality."

"Rochester and western New York are facing economic decline," he said in response to media questions. "Parts of Appalachia are doing better than we are."

Spitzer's campaign backed that assertion up, providing City Newspaper a pack of statistics, including these:

• From 1990 to 2000, Appalachia's population rose by a 10.34 percent, while Upstate's increased by only 1.08 percent. Only West Virginia and North Dakota grew more slowly.

• 40 percent of the 100 fastest growing counties in America from 2004 to 2005 were in Appalachian states. None were from Upstate New York.

• The average job growth rate from January 1996 to January 2006 was twice as high in Appalachia as in Upstate.

• Upstate's median household income is less than that of the Appalachian states and grew 20 percent more slowly than Appalachian states during the 1990s.

But the most devastating stat came not from Spitzer's campaign, but from the State Business Council, which provided the Democrat and Chronicle with an op-ed to counterbalance Minarik's.

"In 2002, average personal income throughout Appalachia was $25,470," Council CEO Dan Walsh wrote. "That was $1,390 higher than the average in the upstate New York counties considered part of Appalachia. It's still the case that relatively fewer people live in poverty in upstate New York --- 11 percent in 2000, compared to 13.6 percent in Appalachia. But the upstate poverty rate rose during the 1990s, while Appalachia's declined."

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