WASHINGTON — When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., visited a farmers market and orchard in the Finger Lakes a few weeks ago, it was as much a reunion as an appearance on the political stump.
"We welcomed her back," said John W. Lincoln, president of New York Farm Bureau, who met her there. In a private meeting, he told her, "Some things have changed since you've been on the campaign trail."
Fresh after dropping her presidential bid, Mrs. Clinton is reconnecting with upstate New York and resuming the kind of schedule that helped her build support unusual for a Democrat across the Republican-leaning region. Her swing through Western New York was her first trip through the region since leaving the race.
Whether Mrs. Clinton needs to rebuild her grass-roots support upstate is an open question; polls suggest she remains about as popular as ever, despite some sources' private assessments that she must shore up her connections to rural New York if she wants to remain in the Senate past her term, which ends in 2012. Northern New York groups that work with her office say her staff hardly missed a beat during her extended absence, especially on issues related to Fort Drum.
But complaints still sprout up.
GETTING BACK IN TOUCH
"We have not seen her out and about for quite some time, only representatives," said a New York lobbyist who works with her office on rural issues and asked to remain anonymous.
"I would say she needs to get back to the 'roots' of New York state," the lobbyist added. "In the past year and a half, we've seen more of basic constituent issues given a highly partisan spin and pushed back as in, 'When I win we can help you, right now it's the Bush administration's fault.' I think that she and her staff need to shift their mentality back to some basic constituent service principles and focus less on the partisan politics side of life."
An official at one north country organization that has had a positive relationship with the senator — and wants to keep it that way — put it this way: "We've been down one senator, I'd say, especially the last six to eight months. We're definitely glad to have her back."
AGRICULTURE A KEY
If Mrs. Clinton is looking to re-engage with upstate, talking about agriculture is one way to do it. She has built a reputation for supporting the state's farmers, hosting an annual "New York Farm Day" on Capitol Hill that showcases food from around the state, including ice cream, cheese and maple syrup from the north country.
But her scarcity in the region during the presidential run meant she was absent when violent thunderstorms ripped through Western New York orchards, pummeling them with hail that destroyed more than half the crop on some farms — and sending farmers in search of federal disaster aid, the change Mr. Lincoln referenced in his comment to the senator. And the ever-present complaints about immigration crackdowns on New York farms have not subsided, Mr. Lincoln said.
To Mrs. Clinton's credit, Mr. Lincoln said, she stopped by an orchard in Wayne County hit hard by hail June 16. And she talked about the importance of agriculture to New York, a favorite theme at New York Farm Day. Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote to the Bush administration, urging a disaster declaration.
Mrs. Clinton's office denies she is trying to make up for any shortfalls; a spokesman, Philippe Reines, maintained that nothing has changed in Mrs. Clinton's devotion to the state, and he declined to say whether she could see herself pursuing another six-year term and perhaps a long career in the Senate — which would require continued support upstate.
And Mrs. Clinton's future remains a point of speculation. Some supporters want her on the ticket as Sen. Barack Obama's running mate, while others see perhaps a Cabinet appointment in an Obama administration.
APPROVAL RATING HIGH
If the senator has lost much support in rural New York, polls do not seem to indicate it. An early June poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute showed her Senate job approval rating at 60 percent among voters in non-urban areas upstate, which generally are Republican. Her disapproval rating was 36 percent.
Her approval rating statewide was 66 percent, which was 6 points lower than her all-time high of 72 percent in December 2006, the poll showed.
In Northern New York, the senator wins praise from the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, where Chairman Keith B. Caughlin said he noticed no change in the senator's office's responsiveness, perhaps owing to Fort Drum's importance and the national security credentials Mrs. Clinton cultivates.
The transition from Senate to campaign trail and back to Senate illustrates how important a lawmaker's staff is. While staffers are always a critical link to constituents, that is all the more true when the lawmaker is seemingly visible everywhere but in the state she represents.
Having the senator back in person obviously helps, Mr. Lincoln said, although he said her office maintained its interest in farm issues.
"I think that carried over even though she wasn't always present," he said.
STAFF FILLED VOID
Mr. Caughlin said Mrs. Clinton's own absence from Fort Drum was understandable, given that a visit there during her presidential campaign could be seen as inappropriate. But her staff remained a regular presence at FDRLO meetings and kept in monthly contact through the senator's north country director, Susan Merrell, he said. "She's been great."
One beneficiary of Mrs. Clinton's diversion might have been Mr. Schumer. Never shy about locking onto upstate issues, he suddenly became an advocate for the St. Lawrence River — an issue that sometimes has seemed to belong to Mrs. Clinton. He spoke out forcefully against the International Joint Commission's latest recommendation on water level regulations.
But that may just have been a coincidence, said one river advocate in Jefferson County, because of the proposal's timing.
Mr. Schumer's office reported no increased requests for constituent services during Mrs. Clinton's presidential campaign.
On the net:See chart detailing Sen. Clinton's visit's to Northern New York at http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/files/clintonvisits.pdf