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Wooing upstate


"I want to talk to you about the 13th largest state."

That's how state Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer led off his speech to a group of Rochester-area business leaders last Thursday. The speech --- along with one made later in the day in Syracuse --- was designed to be the formal unveiling of his economic-development strategy.

And the 13th largest state? It's not a real state at all, of course, but what Upstate would be were it untangled from the New York metropolitan area. Spitzer understands, as just about all the statewide candidates this year seem to, that Upstate has grown restive politically. And his speech was tailored to match that understanding in rhetoric, if less so in substance. He rattled off facts about "the 52 counties north and west of Rockland and Putnam," and spoke about how the state needs to pay better attention to these areas.

He did not, however, go so far as to suggest --- as a coalition of business leaders, including Rochester Business Alliance's Sandy Parker, has --- that Upstate might need some exemptions from state law. His speech did include a nod to that sentiment: "We know government can make things better, but we also know --- especially in this state --- government can make things worse." And he said the way that the state does economic development right now, mainly through tax breaks and other incentives, is "fragmented, politically driven, and unaccountable."

Yet Spitzer's plan for economic development relies heavily on state investment to build what he calls the infrastructure for "an information economy."

In one phrase that seemed particularly designed to become a sound bite, Spitzer said, "If we do not invest in our generation's Erie Canal, we will be left behind."

Exactly what "our generation's Erie Canal" is wasn't clear. Spitzer wants the state to help each major Upstate metro area to invest in strategic industries. (For Rochester, he mentioned biotech and photonics).

In fact, the steps he outlined bear a curious resemblance to the current economic-development system, albeit with a bit of tweaking. For instance, Spitzer still wants to use incentives to achieve development; he just wants to make them smarter. They would have to demonstrate, unlike Empire Zones, for instance, a measurable impact when it comes to creating jobs. And he wants to make them less political (the implication being that under the current administration, incentives go to politically favored businesses, while under a Spitzer administration, they would not).

In the category of paying more attention to Upstate, Spitzer proposed giving the Empire State Development Corporation an Upstate headquarters with more resources and authority. He also acknowledged that "the amount for venture capital in Upstate New York has been paltry" and talked about changing that.

Most of Spitzer's ideas garnered applause from the business leaders gathered to hear him. Still, it's tough to gauge their impression of him.

Many, like Center for Governmental Research head Kent Gardner, were reserving judgment. When it comes to economic development, says Gardner, "I'm convinced that the devil's in the details." All of the ideas Spitzer presented were fine, he says; "The question is, who does he appoint to execute them."

Spitzer wasn't the only statewide politician stumping through Rochester on Thursday.

Later that afternoon, former New York City Public Advocate Mark Green was here, formally announcing his bid to fill the large set of shoes Spitzer's leaving behind when he vacates the attorney general's office at year's end. It's probably a credit to Spitzer, who's made the New York AG office into a national one, that the field in that race is so crowded. Green --- who has pledged to run the AG office as a public-interest law office --- joins five other Democrats and Republican Jeanine Pirro in vying for the seat.

If endorsements mean anything, Green has a good foothold in Rochester, where a handful of political players, including former Democratic chair Bob Cook, City Councilmember Adam McFadden, and former Mayor Bill Johnson, have given him their early backing.

Still, polls --- including one this weekend at the Democratic Rural Conference Convention in Ithaca --- have former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo in the lead. In a jab at Cuomo on Thursday, Green dismissed such polls, saying: "Polls this early essentially test name recognition --- or last-name recognition."

He also dismissed the possibility that a New York City lawyer might struggle to win votes Upstate.

"People want to know who's the best people's lawyer," he said. "What counts ultimately is your record, not your ZIP code. Ultimately we're one state."