Hope, Thy Name Is Hillary, in One Hurting N.Y. Mill Town
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 1999; Page A3
SENECA FALLS, N.Y., March 2 – Here in the birthplace of the women's rights movement, in a Republican stronghold that seemed to fall in love with Hillary Rodham Clinton during her visit last July, the first lady's possible run for the Senate is not the big news. No, even in the homespun small town that was supposedly the model for Bedford Falls in the money-isn't-everything fable "It's a Wonderful Life," it's still the economy, stupid.
In fact, throughout upstate New York, it's the horrible economy, and whoever ends up running for Democratic Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan's seat will ignore that at their peril. And it is the economy that could create an opportunity for Hillary Clinton, or any Democratic candidate, and turn this traditional bastion of the GOP into a crucial battleground in 2000. Early polls and interviews around Seneca Falls suggest that upstate voters are so desperate to join the nation's economic boom that they would consider anyone who cares about their problems.
Clinton will surely stir up a national media frenzy Wednesday when she visits thriving New York City. But fittingly, 300 miles away in Seneca Falls – where a wry sign in the town supervisor's office reads: "Due to the present economic uncertainties, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off indefinitely" – there is a more pressing matter at hand. The owners of the Seneca Knitting Mills, the town's second-largest manufacturer and most visible downtown landmark, have decided to shut down the 155-year-old factory. The workers – about three fourths of them women – have until Friday to rescue the plant.
"I'm just so tired of starting over," said Sandra O'Connor, 52, who has worked at the mill for 13 years. Before that, she had worked 12 years at a local television factory, until it shut down. Before that, she had worked four years for a local auto parts factory, until it moved to Kentucky. "Maybe Hillary can save our jobs," she sighed.
O'Connor's plea could be applied throughout upstate New York, where the hard times have made George Bailey's cinematic jump off the bridge look like a walk in the park. Its manufacturing base has hemorrhaged well-paying jobs, and few communities have figured out how to replace them. General Motors and Miller Brewing shuttered plants in Syracuse. Republic Steel and Bell Aerospace abandoned Niagara Falls. Rochester absorbed massive layoffs at Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb. Last year, after the Buffalo News ran a seven-part series titled "Upstate: Downbound," the region added only 14,200 jobs, versus 113,400 downstate.
In the past, that might not have affected a Senate race. Traditionally, Democrats have dominated New York City, Republicans have owned the rural communities upstate, and the downstate suburbs have been up for grabs. For example, in 1992 and 1996, President Clinton coasted to comfortable victories statewide simply by running reasonably close to his GOP opponents upstate. In 1994 and 1998, Gov. George E. Pataki (R) won on the strength of huge upstate routs.
But if the race to replace Moynihan becomes a celebrity battle – pitting the first lady, voted the most admired woman in America in some polls, against New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), hailed as the tough guy who tamed the Big Apple – the usual geographical calculus may be useless. Giuliani is more popular than most Republicans in the city and its suburbs, but less popular upstate, where a New York City address can be more harmful than Arkansas and Washington ones. Even GOP-dominated towns like Seneca Falls could be in play.
"I didn't like what Hillary did with the health care, but I'd probably vote for her," said Dick Marshall, a Republican who owns a used-car business here. "She's a smart lady. Hey, at least she came to visit. I don't see anyone else paying attention to this place."
After a Quinnipiac College poll taken during last month's run-Hillary-run media blitz, the main storyline was the first lady leading Giuliani 54 to 36 percent. But the breakdown of the numbers showed how unpredictable that dream race could be: Giuliani won narrowly in the suburbs, while Clinton won big on Giuliani's city turf and even came out ahead upstate. Still, potential voters said Giuliani had a much better understanding of New York issues than the first lady, who has never lived in the state.
In interviews with about 30 voters in Seneca Falls, the refrain was almost always the same: They said they don't care about the first's lady's role in the Travelgate firings, her Whitewater billing records or her cattle futures bonanza. They don't care about her husband's sex life or his testimony under oath. They said they just want a senator to feel their pain and do something to ease it. And despite her liberal reputation in Washington, the first lady seems to represent an almost non-ideological form of hope for many voters around here.
"This is a conservative area, and I think most of us would prefer someone from New York as a senator. But that doesn't mean we won't support her," said Janette Pfeiff, a Republican who is the first female town supervisor of Seneca Falls, where America's first Women's Rights Convention was held in 1848. "The economy is the overwhelming issue. That comes first."
In some ways, Seneca Falls still resembles the picturesque mill town captured by "It's A Wonderful Life" in 1946, with its quaint Victorian homes and tidy downtown storefronts. The Women's Rights National Historic Park set an attendance record last year during its 150th anniversary and local wineries are attracting increasing numbers of tourists.
But the hand-hewn limestone knitting mill is not the only local institution unraveling like a ball of yarn. The county's largest manufacturer, Gould Pumps, has laid off 100 workers since January. In the last year, a cafe, a newsstand, a deli, an art gallery, a furniture shop, an appliance store, a bakery and a historic hotel and restaurant have all gone out of business on Falls Street, the main drag. Unless the mill is saved, its Falls Street socks store will close soon. Meanwhile, the demise of a local Army depot has moved 3,000 military and 800 civilian jobs out of town. One resident recently posted a large sign on her house asking the last person to leave Seneca Falls to please turn out the lights.
There is some economic growth here, but most of it reflects the area's problems more than its promise. A 1,500-bed maximum-security prison is coming to the old Army base, along with a residential school for troubled youths. A new drug treatment center has opened. The county's landfill is about to expand, and its eight hog farms have all opened since 1994.
In this climate, to put it mildly, the 2000 Senate race is not exactly Topic A.
"Everyone just wants to know about the mill. That's people's lives, you know? That's important," said Sharon Mannix, a manager of the Seneca Knit Mills sock store who was laid off last year from her job as a secretary at the Army depot.
When pressed, though, most Seneca Falls residents concede that politics can affect their lives. It was the federal government, after all, that shut down the depot. And it was Moynihan – after a chat two decades ago with George Souhan, the former owner of the knitting mill – who laid the groundwork for the 1848 convention site to become a national park. Some people here believe the first lady could work similar magic.
"I wish she knew more about our problems, but I'm sure she'd learn," said Republican Mary Lee Miller, a secretary in her husband's law office. "She's a real leader."
Hillary Clinton addressed 18,000 people here during the 150th anniversary celebration last July, and most of them cheered as she called for women to exercise their hard-won right to vote. That day, the women's rights park received more than four times as many visitors as it ever had before, and sold 16 times as much merchandise. But that doesn't necessarily mean the people here would vote for Clinton. Even Souhan, a former Democratic leader in the county, thinks she's wrong for the job. "I don't think she knows a damn thing about upstate New York," said Republican Bill Snyder, a local truck driver. "This place is dying. We need someone who understands that."
The employees of the Seneca Knitting Mills certainly do. There were once 240 of them, earning $6 to $15 an hour. It was hard work – winding, twisting, knitting, drying – but union leader Carole Thompson said they were always treated well when Souhan owned the plant.
In 1995, though, Souhan got sick, and had to sell his family's mill to a North Carolina firm. The new owners (who have not hired one female supervisor even though the work force is mostly women) posted cardboard signs with blue lettering on the shop floor: "Production Comes First." Employee grievances shot up to about 10 a week. Finally, after signing a new contract with the Seneca Falls workers, the firm announced it was eliminating their jobs.
"I have no idea what we're going to do," said Phyllis Beatty, a dryer who makes $8.25 an hour after 37 years. Her husband is a supervisor; her son works on the line. "God knows there aren't any other jobs left in this town, except Burger King."
The workers need to come up with about $5 million in financing by Friday to buy the mill themselves; federal loans and grants could help save the day. It's a long shot, but they say they know just the person in the White House who could help.
"Right now, Hillary is our best hope," said Thompson, an inspector whose daughter works at the plant as a knitter. "We know she cares about people like us."
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