Don’t Be a Stranger

Conservative commentator Kate O’Beirne, May 15: “Trips to the Empire State so Mrs. Clinton can learn the difference between Elmira and Elmhurst should be reimbursed.”

Republican congressman Rick Lazio, May 23: “She needs an exploratory committee to find Elmira.”

Governor George Pataki, May 24: “We want a senator who’s going to fight for Buffalo and Elmira and Brooklyn and Montauk.”

GOP consultant Roger Stone, May 27: “She needs a road map to find Elmira.”

Newsday editorial, May 30: “But the first time she confuses Elmira and Elmont, watch out!”

Do we detect a pattern here?

All good campaigns have their symbols. And in the Senate race that hasn’t really started yet, Elmira has somehow become one. As Elmira’s Star-Gazette associate editor David Kubissa puts it, “We’re the Dubuque of New York!”

As if the invocations above weren’t enough, Hillary Clinton herself sealed Elmira’s happy fate at an appearance at Tavern on the Green, when she noted the presence in the audience of a few Elmirans and said, “I’ve been to Elmira.” This was technically true, as she had passed through in the family car on a vacation 40 years ago, but it understandably induced much merrymaking among the locals.

The time is right, urban-snob brothers and sisters, to devote a few moments’ study to this town that has become the metaphor for everything Hillary Clinton doesn’t know about New York.

Population 33,724. Situated near what I believe they call the junction of the two tiers, western and southern, just a few miles on the lucky side of the long, flat New York-Pennsylvania border. Claim to fame? Chuckle if you like, but if Elmira doesn’t meet your demands, well, fie on you, because it was good enough for America’s greatest novelist. Samuel Clemens married Elmira-born Olivia Langdon, and, peripatetic though the couple was, they happily returned there every summer for more than twenty years. Out in the little octagonal study the Langdons had built on the family estate for the sake of the famous writer’s peace and quiet, Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The estate is closed to the public, but the study is now parked on the Elmira College campus, and you can even go sit in his rocking chair and pray for a dose of gluteally absorbed genius.

What else can I tell you? It’s home to the National Soaring Museum. You know – gliders. “The thermals, as they say, are exactly right for this,” says Kevin D. Keeley, president of the local chamber of commerce. “The topographical features, the prevailing winds, all that stuff makes it perfect for soaring.” There’s a useful metaphor there for the first candidate willing to go up in one.

On to the political. Elmira is the county seat of – wait, let’s stop here. This is the first rule of New York State campaigning: Know thy county! Just ask Ed Koch. In 1982, when Koch was running for governor, he’d just finished a successful speaking engagement in Cooperstown (Otsego County) when a local reporter came up to him with a question. “Mr. Mayor,” the reporter asked, “what county are you in?” Koch had no idea, and made a weak (and wrong) guess, and the reporter said “Thank you” and walked away. Koch asked Marty McLaughlin, the press aide traveling with him at the time, whether he thought this small lapse would have consequences. “How about,” McLaughlin presumably screamed, just as he screamed it to me over the phone last week, “the front page of every fuckin’ newspaper in the fuckin’ STATE?!?”

Anyway, Elmira is in Chemung County, which carpetbaggers and even downstate mayors should be careful to pronounce “Shuh-MUNG.” It’s Republican, but not reflexively so: Mrs. Clinton may take encouragement in the fact that Mr. Clinton carried the county twice. Al D’Amato was very popular there, but people are grateful that Chuck Schumer has been visiting the area – even though D’Amato beat him there – and letting the folk know he knows they exist.

Which seems to be what Elmirans want. Alert to the remote odds of the state’s electing to the United States Senate someone from their neck of the woods, they seek a senator who’ll at least show up once in a while. When Elmirans are asked about issues, it’s not the moral decay of America that gets them lathered up but whether Route 17, the local four-lane, will get interstate-highway designation. It will be numbered 86 when and if the glorious day arrives (possible Hillary slogan: “Don’t eighty-six 86!”).

It’s not a place that’s suffering. “In recent years, we’ve led the state in job growth and sales-tax growth,” says Elmira city manager Sam Iraci, a Buffalo native whose classmates at his Jesuit high school included Tim Russert. “Consequently, we’ve cut property-tax rates, adjusted for inflation, by about 31 percent. So the economy’s pretty good here.” But it is a place that a careless candidate might forget about.

This, in a nutshell, is the upstate challenge. In downstate-media shorthand, we refer to upstate as conservative. Maybe, but it’s a conservatism born not of ideological fervor but of the (well-placed) suspicion that our concerns aren’t their concerns, and that about their concerns we just aren’t very … concerned. Rudy Giuliani may have an advantage over Mrs. Clinton by virtue of his party affiliation, but he’ll have to jump that hurdle, too.

So there you have it. When Hillary visits, she might do so with Elmira native Tommy Hilfiger, whose sister, Betsy, runs a Hilfiger outlet there. She should certainly stump at Elmira College, the first liberal-arts school in America to award women a four-year degree (bad advance work at the White House, missing that). Finally, how can she not eat – I’m not making this up – at the popular supper club called Lib’s? “And we,” promises Democratic mayor Stephen Hughes, “will pick up the tab.”


Don’t Be a Stranger