Clinton's switch from state dinners to sewers
After half a year in Senate, she gets credit for hard work, but negative ratings stay.
LEROY, N.Y. — The police chief of LeRoy just told New York Sen. Hillary Clinton he's worried that federal funds, which helped put two more officers on the streets, are about to dry up.
The Democratic senator, who's standing in the lobby of the new town hall in this upstate farming village, shakes her head.
"It makes me so frustrated," she says, popping a grape in her mouth. "It's basic arithmetic: With more police you can prevent more crime. Anybody else want some of this fruit?"
Welcome to the working world of the nation's first first-lady senator. No longer the guarded political neophyte who was mocked for her staged "listening tour" two years ago, Mrs. Clinton has gained mostly good marks from pundits and constituents during her first seven months in office for hard work and success at becoming ordinary.
Her days are full of talk of salt mines, sewers, and brownfields. Gone are the protesters and the hordes of reporters. She still has her Secret Service detail, but they're far more relaxed, and sometimes even smile. She's quick with a joke, and even gives the occasional slap on the back.
"It's rather amazing that she's made the transformation from first lady to someone's who's comfortable in a soup kitchen outside of Syracuse," says pollster John Zogby. "She's building and developing a political persona in [Republican] parts of the state that was once thought impossible."
There's no question, though, that "Hillary" - as she's known here by friend and foe alike - still inspires a lot of anger. Mr. Zogby recently completed a poll that found that while 54 percent have a favorable opinion of her, which is higher than when she was elected, her unfavorable rating still remains at 46 percent of New Yorkers. Of those, a solid 30 percent have a very unfavorable opinion of her.
"She could rescue three children from a burning house, and they'd believe she staged it for publicity purposes," says Zogby. "She is 'La Diabla' to them, and that isn't going to change."
Tom, a Republican who didn't want his full name used, had nothing good to say about her as he sat outside of the Smoke Shoppe on LeRoy's Main Street.
"She hasn't done anything, she ain't gonna do anything, and she never will do anything," he said.
But Clinton tends to get better reviews from the Republicans she does business with, like Monroe County Executive John Doyle. He showed up with an array of elected Rochester officials for the opening of Clinton's new office there.
"I see no reason why we can't work closely with Senator Clinton," he says. "We have a number of initiatives that we're looking to her to help us on - things like EPA old grant monies for sewage treatment construction."
Mr. Doyle chuckles, remembering the friendly jibe he gave Clinton the first time they met. She'd been at a Democratic fundraiser the night before, firing up the faithful to "get rid of all of those Republicans."
"So I said to her, 'Sorry I missed your big fundraiser, but I'm here and so you got to deal with me,' " he says. "She laughed, and I think that's very important."
But in cities like Rochester, Clinton has more to overcome than just her reputation. This city has seen itself as a poor stepchild to Buffalo and has felt ignored. Senators used to keep their regional offices in Buffalo and tended to make regional visits there.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer changed that, opening up a Rochester office. Clinton, who modeled her campaign - and now it appears her governing style - on Mr. Schumer's success, has also made Rochester a priority.
But you wouldn't know it from reading the local paper. Last week, when Clinton opened her office, the Democrat and Chronicle ran an editorial chiding her for lack of attention.
Yet, last week was the seventh time she had visited the Rochester area since she was elected. One pundit joked that that was probably more than former Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D) had done in his entire career.
"It doesn't make sense. They're complaining about her not coming here. It made me so mad this morning I didn't know what to do," says Alonzo Wilson, a retired auto worker who came out to meet Clinton in LeRoy.
But other Rochester residents are far less supportive. Ray Murray thinks Clinton is using New York as a steppingstone.
"I think she's just looking for public attention to raise some more money for what she wants to do in the future," he says. He was particularly angered by Clinton's high-profile role in defeating President Bush's nominee to head the Consumer Products Safety Commission. While that won her national kudos for political adroitness, Mr. Murray believes she should be paying more attention to local issues.
The senator's staff, however, was quick to provide a list of more than a dozen amendments she has proposed or co-sponsored that deal with local issues such as improving schools, protecting the Finger Lakes National Forest, and finding more money for brownfield cleanup. She has also issued a package of seven bills designed to jump-start the upstate economy.
"She's taken to the job itself, rather than exploiting the potential for fanfare," says New York political analyst Lee Miringoff of the Marist Polling Institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "There's nothing like working hard and sticking to your job to get over the rough spots."