N.Y. Special Headed to Photo Finish

MOREAU, N.Y. — Winter hangs on in the North Country, like a guest who has badly overstayed his welcome. With late March temperatures struggling to nose above freezing, the rolling landscape, save for the spruce trees, is a dead brown.

It’s a fitting metaphor for the economy in upstate New York, which didn’t profit during the recent boom years and is suffering disproportionately now in this deep recession. But that’s the opening and closing argument for Scott Murphy, the Democratic nominee in next week’s special Congressional election that has made this quiet part of the world political ground zero for the past few weeks.

“We’ve had the same message from the very beginning,— he says.

As he travels the sprawling 20th district, Murphy, a 39-year-old businessman making his first run for public office, is like a preacher, extolling President Barack Obama’s stimulus package as the road to upstate’s economic salvation.

“I’m a business person,— says Murphy, a one-time political operative who made a fortune investing in startup companies. “I looked at an $800 billion spending plan and it was really scary. But I came to the conclusion that this was the right thing to do, the right thing for upstate New York.—

It’s said that campaigning is poetry while governing is prose, but sometimes campaigning can be prose, too. The other day, Murphy came to this town, wedged between the resort city of Saratoga Springs and the grittier Glens Falls, to talk to local officials and business owners about sewer lines.

Moreau officials hope to build a sewer line that runs 6.1 miles to the treatment plant in Glens Falls. It would be a boon for local businesses, they believe, like Mr. Bill’s Car Hop, a burger and ice cream joint whose owners, Bill and Michelle Smith, want to operate year-round but feel it’s too costly and risky to use a private septic system during the long, cold winter.

Under the stimulus plan, the town is eligible for millions of dollars in federal aid to make their dream come true.

“It’s the best environment [to fund the project] that we’ve had in 30 years,— says Tim Burley, the town engineer.

Searching for Trends

The race between Murphy and State Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco (R) has in some ways been over-hyped. But perhaps that was inevitable.

Take the first competitive contest of the new election cycle, mix in new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s vow that this will be the place where the GOP begins its resurgence, add Murphy’s emphasis on the stimulus, and voila! — there’s a recipe for pundits to read an awful lot into the outcome.

But in the end, the race to replace appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who flipped the district into the Democratic column in 2006 after years of Republican dominance, is still just a special election. Turnout will be miniscule, meaning in the end the winner will be the person who pulled his voters to the polls, rather than the harbinger of any mighty trend.

The numbers suggest a relatively fair fight. Both candidates have raised more than $1 million for the two-month battle; Murphy dropped $250,000 of his own wealth into the campaign, Tedisco $200,000. There are 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district, but voters have gotten into the habit of voting for Democrats. Obama won the district by almost 3 points last year.

There are obvious stylistic differences between the two candidates — different life and political experiences. But in this topsy-turvy world, when the Democrat is hawking his fiscal responsibility and the Republican is railing against corporate greed, anything goes.

The TV commercials have almost uniformly been toxic, and they’re coming fast and furious (eight in an hour during the local CBS newscast in Albany the other evening). The average voter is being led to believe it’s a race between a “career politician— who coddles felons, and a tax-cheating “Wall Street insider— who, like American International Group, has paid exorbitant bonuses to undeserving executives. There’s no context, no serious exploration of the issues, no attempt to truly engage the voters.

“The only thing I do regret is that you always criticize each other,— retiree Dolores Tierney scolds Murphy as he greets the lunchtime crowd at the Malta Diner in Ballston Spa on Tuesday. Still, she said she’s voting for him anyway because “I think we need new blood.—

For Tedisco, a 58-year-old brawler who has spent 26 years in the Legislature and was a teacher, basketball coach and Schenectady city councilman, the ferocity of this brief campaign has been a revelation.

“I’ve never run in one like this. I think [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] has pulled out all the stops and done everything she can to distort my record,— he muses, before taking a swipe at his novice opponent. “I suppose that’s what happens when there is a record.—

But Tedisco has been critical about national Republicans as well — ruing some of the negative rhetoric that has emanated from Washington, D.C.

“We can’t control the things that come out of Washington,— he says. “I wish I could plan my own campaign.—

Giving Regards to Broadway

Murphy isn’t the only candidate talking about the economy. On Tuesday, Tedisco spends an hour walking Broadway, the central business district in Saratoga Springs, popping in and out of stores to greet merchants. But it isn’t the ideal place to inspect the economic devastation of upstate New York.

Saratoga is a whole lot different than most upstate towns. It has the same stone and Victorian buildings, but it’s well-kept and prosperous, a year-round tourist destination famous for its horse track and its healing waters. There are high-end national chains there, as well as jewelry stores with $20,000 Rolexes, a French bakery, a rare bookseller (the oldest book there — on horses — dates to the 16th century), and an apothecary (please don’t call it a drugstore).

Not that stores aren’t hurting — with few exceptions, the merchants say that business is off.

“It’s definitely been a rough year,— says David Barker, who with his wife, Marianne, has owned Impressions of Saratoga, a gift and craft shop, for 31 years. “We’ve had to cut back on our employees. The pain is being felt up and down Broadway.—

In Albany, Tedisco is a shoot-from-the-lip pol who is often irrelevant because the Republican minority in the Assembly is so small, but he can be incredibly effective when he hits his target, as he was when he sandbagged former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s (D) proposal to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Yet he’s staying on message on Broadway, even though some of the people he meets wince because he keeps calling it “Main Street— — to contrast with Murphy’s Wall Street connections.

Murphy spent a month whacking Tedisco for refusing to take a position on Obama’s stimulus plan. “He must have been waiting for a poll to tell him what he thought,— he says at every campaign stop.

Murphy pounced again when Tedisco finally came out against it, and as polls tightened it appeared as if he were scoring points. But the furor over AIG has given Tedisco an opportunity to get off his heels, claiming Murphy and Congressional Democrats should have known that the bill preserved the bonuses to AIG executives.

“I guess you gotta change your name to AIG,— Tedisco tells shop owner Marianne Barker. He goes on to say that only 1 percent of the stimulus package is dedicated to small businesses, “who create 60 to 80 percent of the jobs,— even as $300 billion in the bill is for “special agenda and philosophical spending. It’s emblematic that Washington just doesn’t get it.—

“That’s frustrating to hear when you’ve got to explain to your employees that you’ve got to cut back,— Marianne Barker replies.

Tedisco finds support along Broadway.

“We need help,— says Michael Lenz, owner and compounding pharmacist at Menges & Curtis Apothecary and Compounding Center. “I appreciate all you’ve done here locally. Keep fighting!—

Tedisco is beaming — not just from the words of encouragement he’s getting in Saratoga but because Neil Golub, the president of the Price Chopper supermarket chain, the largest private employer in the 20th district, has just cut a TV spot for him. It’s the first time Golub, a bipartisan political donor, has ever appeared in a campaign ad.

It’s clear that business represents the backbone of Tedisco’s support, with endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. But will that support translate into boots on the ground?

Murphy isn’t conceding the pro-business label to Tedisco, given his own business background. But for the boots on the ground, he is, not surprisingly, relying on organized labor for help.

If Murphy wins, the man most responsible for his success may be Larry Bulman. Bulman, a friendly 42-year-old who looks like a younger version of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), is the secretary-treasurer of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union Local 773, and doubles as the chairman of the Saratoga County Democratic Committee. Working out of the low-slung brick union hall in the unassuming town of South Glens Falls, Bulman was an early promoter of Murphy’s candidacy and compares him to JFK.

“Kirsten Gillibrand in her two elections did not have the union support that Scott Murphy does,— Bulman says. “We’ve got every part of the [labor] movement working.—

Help Wanted

A better barometer than Saratoga Springs of the state of the economy in upstate New York is probably Glens Falls, an industrial city that is dominated by the huge Finch Paper mill along the Hudson River (yes, THAT Hudson River).

Downtown Glens Falls in many ways looks a lot like Saratoga, its neighbor 11 miles to the south. It has the same Victorian storefronts. In fact, Scott Murphy, a Missouri native who moved to town three years ago to be near his in-laws, lives on the edge of downtown, in a house that looks like stately Wayne Manor in the old “Batman— TV series.

The downtown has a sparkling new public library, complete with a regionally acclaimed folklore center in the basement, and a theater that draws national acts like folk singer Tom Paxton. Murphy’s campaign headquarters is nearby, next to offices for the Adirondack Regional Chambers of Commerce and state Sen. Betty Little — who competed for the GOP nomination in the special election and who some Republicans believe would have been a stronger candidate than Tedisco.

But there’s no ignoring all the vacant storefronts, or the multitude of taverns, or the church mission with a daily soup kitchen (and free haircuts every Wednesday).

“It’s all about jobs,— says a man named Ed who has just stepped out of the soup kitchen clutching an old-fashioned transistor radio, sounding very much like someone in a Murphy TV ad.

Across the street in Sandy’s Clam Bar, which has to be one of the five darkest bars in America even in the middle of the afternoon, one out-of-work patron, who does not want to give his name, says, “I’m practicing being retired.— Bernie Byrne, a retired Army sergeant, ticks off a list of all the towns he’s lived in and been priced out of. He’s voting for Murphy, he says, “because he’s Irish and because of jobs.—

Sitting at the other end of the horseshoe-shaped bar, Ron Bullard, a 35-year-old insurance company employee, isn’t happy with either candidate but says he’ll vote for Tedisco because he worries that Democrats will raise his taxes and take away his guns.

“Pretty much I think everybody sucks,— he says. “Everybody’s making promises that they’re not going to keep.—

The Final Daze

The 20th Congressional district runs from Poughkeepsie to Lake Placid, but manages to skirt Albany, the state capital. Still, Albany is at the center of the district, and on a recent frigid evening the 20th district race is one of the hot topics among the political wiseguys drinking at the bars on Pearl Street.

Nobody can quite figure out this race, and a televised debate Tuesday night doesn’t help. Both candidates essentially stick to their scripts even when implored to tackle other subjects by the moderator. Tedisco talks fast and occasionally goes off on tangents to prove his points, like when he notes that the governor, the state comptroller and Gillibrand have all been appointed to their positions, or promotes a small-business proposal when asked about tourism. Murphy is more polished, more measured, but not enough of a political pro to finesse every awkward question.

Gillibrand’s popularity (a 78 percent approval rating in a recent Siena College poll) is an undeniable asset for Murphy, and he mentions her almost as often as he talks about the stimulus package. She’s already cut a TV ad for him, and it would be surprising not to see her on the campaign trail in the final days.

Obama, too, is an asset, and he finally announced his support for Murphy on Wednesday in an e-mail to his supporters throughout New York. Will he do more? No one can say.

Gov. David Paterson (D), by contrast, is quite unpopular, and the fact that he announced plans late Tuesday to lay off 8,900 state employees won’t help his standing in the region. But will that hurt Murphy, his fellow Democrat, or Tedisco, the Albany insider?

In a close race like this, something as random as which political operatives are occupied in last-minute budget negotiations at the state Capitol next Tuesday and missing from the campaign trail could be the difference. (Budget wrangling may also pull Tedisco off the campaign trail.) So could whether the Libertarian candidate, Eric Sundwall, will be allowed on the ballot, or whether the Justice Department extends the election to allow more time for the ballots from overseas military personnel to arrive.

Bulman, the union leader, worries about the tone of the campaign and the Republican edge in voter registration but believes his neighbors will be able to cut through all the fog.

“I’m proud of the people of the 20th district,— he says. “They seem to care about the issues.—

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