For Clinton, Even Presidential Politics Is Local
Senator Hopes Attention to Little Things Will Help Her Take Next Big Step

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On the same day that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) announced that he had raised $25 million in the first three months of his presidential campaign, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) made her own $25 million announcement -- a federal grant to restore oyster beds in Long Island Sound.

She also lined up $14 million for the Montauk Point Lighthouse and $18 million to stop erosion at Orchard Beach. A few days earlier, Clinton took a break from her presidential campaign to applaud a new Bass Pro Shops megastore in Buffalo and to meet with the federal railroad administrator about train derailments in New York. Another day, she toured Upstate veterans hospitals and visited troops at Fort Drum instead of heading to Iowa or New Hampshire.

In the 6 1/2 years since she was elected to the Senate, Clinton has paid close attention to the constituent services and pork-barrel politics that earned one of her predecessors, Republican Alfonse M. D'Amato, the nickname "Senator Pothole." Even now, when many fellow candidates have no time for making all their Senate votes, much less announcing federal grants, Clinton seems intent on proving her commitment to her adopted state.

In part, her focus is a carryover from her entry into New York politics in 2000 as the wife of a president with no ties to the state, eager to demonstrate her seriousness and convince voters that she was not using the Senate as a steppingstone to return to the White House.

"I still remember the bumper sticker: 'Not her, not here, not now,' " said Iva E. Deutchman, political science chairman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. "She is still trying to prove people wrong."

But keeping her plate full at the Senate is also part of Clinton's campaign strategy, a real-time illustration that she is a workhorse with a practical view of government. That emphasis on small-scale initiatives rather than ambitious ones was famously championed by Mark Penn, her campaign pollster and chief strategist, when he worked for President Bill Clinton nearly a decade ago and promoted such administration policies as school uniforms.

"I think Americans are feeling neglected," Penn said. "It's been a long time since they had a president who if they said they were going to work on the Upstate economy, they actually did it."

When Clinton took office in 2001, her staff asked her what leadership model she preferred: the approach of the icon whose seat she was taking -- Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), a former Harvard professor who relished engaging in ambitious ideas on entitlement reform and social policy -- or the brass-tacks style of D'Amato. The D'Amato role was already being filled aggressively by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D), who had beaten him in 1998. But Clinton replied that she wanted to try a blend of both.

Over time, she has evolved into a hybrid legislator, a figure of outsize influence but limited scope, offering no big initiatives. As the main strategist for one of her husband's principal policy initiatives, Clinton learned firsthand during the 1993 health-care reform debacle that a big legislative failure can carry a heavy cost.

She discovered early on in the Senate that working on the margins can be an effective way for a junior member to deliver results for her state -- especially from the minority side of the aisle, where Democrats have dwelled for most of her Senate tenure.

Two months after taking office, she introduced a package of seven initiatives to stimulate economic development in chronically depressed Upstate New York. They were key planks of her Senate campaign, but only three passed. Aides said the experience led Clinton to narrow her focus to initiatives that she could largely control.

For instance, on May 17, 2002, she introduced a resolution to pay the famous runaway slave Harriet Tubman a pension for her Civil War service. On Oct. 29, 2003, Clinton announced she had secured the $11,750 for Tubman's estate in Auburn, N.Y.

The grants and federal assistance that Clinton helped to obtain for New York started with a trickle in 2001. But they add up to more than $1 billion over six years, according to her staff's records. That's not counting the $20 billion that Clinton, Schumer and other lawmakers brought in for New York City's recovery efforts after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I've been impressed, and I work hard in New York," Schumer said.

Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and a student of Congress, said: "Very few senators approach the United States Senate with a plan the way Senator Clinton seems to have. Her career has really been a study in method."

But there is a potential downside, Baker and other observers say. Clinton delivers major speeches from time to time, including recent addresses on Iraq and alternative energy, and she is widely praised for her Sept. 11-related work, a major focus of legislators from New York and New Jersey. But her tenure speaks more to her work habits than to the ambitious vision many voters tend to look for in a presidential hopeful.

"It takes a person of unusual political talent to do well as a senator and at the same time translate yourself into a presidential candidate," Baker said. "We're only watching that unfold right now."

Clinton has carved out an unusual niche in her six years on Capitol Hill: Senator Pothole with a celebrity twist. Too new to sit on the Appropriations Committee, the traditional pipeline to pork, Clinton compensates by taking advantage of her high profile and a deep Rolodex to dole out favors like a ward boss -- even as she launches a White House campaign.

She'll enlist just about anyone. When Lockheed Martin was bidding to bring the Marine One helicopter contract to Owego, N.Y., Clinton asked British Prime Minister Tony Blair to press the case with President Bush. To help Adirondack artisans sell their wares on the Internet, she called in eBay's chief executive, Meg Whitman.

To chair New Jobs for New York, a charitable organization that Clinton created to lure companies upstate, she tapped Roger Altman, a Clinton administration official who is now a New York investment banker.

After Clinton was reelected in November by a 2 to 1 margin, the clock started ticking on her presidential announcement. But first, Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton needed help: Bechtel Plant Machinery, a prominent local employer, had announced it was relocating to Pittsburgh.

On Nov. 15, Clinton called Stratton, Schumer and Rep. Michael R. McNulty (D-N.Y.) to her Senate office for a meeting with Bechtel officials. Stratton described Clinton as "totally enraged and totally engaged" and said she demanded to see the data that had informed Bechtel's decision.

Schumer reminded the executives that Bechtel relied heavily on federal contracts, that Democrats were now the majority party, and that Clinton was a member of the Armed Services Committee. Her presumed front-runner status for the 2008 Democratic nomination was never mentioned, Schumer said. But he described it as "the 800-pound gorilla in the room."

Two weeks later, Bechtel announced it was suspending the move. Relocating remained the better option, Bechtel executive T.F. Hash wrote to the senators. But he added: "I am, however, mindful of the difficulties this decision has placed on our employees and the community."

The company decided that 130 jobs would stay in Schenectady, with 30 workers being reassigned to a nearby facility and 70 jobs moving to Pittsburgh. When Clinton declared her candidacy on Jan. 20, Stratton issued a three-page endorsement.

In February, Upstate investor Dennis Bunnell was attempting to restart a Newton Falls paper mill that had been idle for seven years when he ran into a regulatory glitch with the Environmental Protection Agency. A potentially lengthy review of the factory's boilers threatened to delay the hiring of 100 workers in the rural community, located on the remote western edge of Adirondack Park.

Bunnell contacted Clinton's office, and the senator placed two calls to the local EPA office. On March 13, regional administrator Alan Steinberg announced that the review would not be necessary. Bunnell expects production to start this summer. "I'm assuming she's demonstrated the same attention to detail to other projects," he said.

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