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Energy Issue Hits Home in Syracuse

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- When Dan Maffei is pressed to say what the No. 1 issue is for voters in the 25th district, his answer is the economy and jobs, despite the fact that gas prices are just as high here as they are elsewhere in the country.

But as is the case across the nation, the local economic climate and the high cost of energy are intimately related, as became clear when Maffei visited a lunch picnic for United Auto Workers retirees Tuesday on the grounds where the New York State Fair will begin next week.

The gathering featured an older crowd grazing on a huge buffet of food, and the questions for Maffei were mostly about jobs and why younger people were moving away from Syracuse. One retiree complained that the auto industry hasn't shifted enough to manufacturing hybrid cars and pickups. "There's no doubt that the management in Detroit has been slow to switch," Maffei responded.

This was not an environmentalists' picnic. The question about building more hybrids hits close to home for auto workers in the area, because their jobs could be at stake.

The UAW represents workers at the New Process Gear plant in DeWitt, just east of Syracuse. Previously owned by Chrysler, the factory is now owned by Magna International, and it makes drivetrains for SUVs and other light trucks -- exactly the segment of the auto market that has been hurt most by spiraling gas prices. In February, Magna and the union reached agreement on a new contract that kept the plant open but cut workers' wages, and now there's talk of more pay cuts and even closure of the facility.

"The heartburn, if you will, is we've got a recently ratified contract and now management wants to open it back up," says Dave Scalisi, an official with the UAW Local 624.

"We're looking for ways for the company to save money without cutting pay," Scalisi said, adding that he understood that demand for trucks and SUVs had gone off a cliff. That's why he and other workers at the NPG factory would be eager for Magna to convert the plant to manufacturing parts for hybrids or other alternative fuel vehicles.

"We can make anything," Scalisi said. "We'll make vacuum cleaners if we have to."

The issue set -- and the audience -- were decidedly different a couple of hours later, when Maffei went to the mostly black Southside neighborhood for a roundtable with local residents and business owners at a community resource center. There is no talk here of high gas prices, Iraq or trade agreements.

But while the neighborhood has changed, Maffei's theme sounds a lot like the one he voiced Tuesday morning in the tonier Armory Square neighborhood.

"The Southside of Syracuse is a place of endless potential that has so far, at least in the last several decades, been unrealized," he said.

The prescription here isn't so different either, according to Maffei: better education and better jobs. There are programs to train workers in new skills, programs to place disadvanted young people in internships and programs to provide free tutoring for high school students, all of which could use more federal or local government funding. Mike Atkins, who runs the center, points out that Maffei knows the right people in Washington already and would surely be an "MVP" in Congress.

But some attendees of the roundtable brought with them problems that defy easy answers. One woman said she was an unemployed single mother of eight children, and that she had recently finished nearly two years in prison for attempted robbery. "I know for a fact that my criminal background is what's stifling me from actually obtaining employment. What can I do about that?" she asked.

"There's clearly not a whole lot of answers right now," Maffei answered after a pause. "But we've got to create them. And I will say this, it's really foolish if we don't."

By Ben Pershing  |  August 13, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
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Next: From Fair to Factory Floor, Energy Talk Dominates


I am sympathetic to folks having trouble. I can no longer work due to a brain tumor. Even before this, however, I could not afford eight children...especially without the help of my husband. That may be a factor in the attempted robbery. People may not like to hear it, but I think all of us must act responsibly ... even if we are poor. Otherwise, we are creating a downward spiral that "society" cannot fix.

Posted by: L. Roberts | August 13, 2008 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Dan, it would help to identify the political party of the incumbent/challengers in every post. This was the first post I read and I didn't recognize Maffei. Very informative otherwise. thx

Posted by: NCW | August 13, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

NCW, you might click on the candidate's name -- it's hyperlinked directly to his website.

To echo the above: eight children, stint in prison, and unemployed? How do THOSE get to sounding like good choices?

Posted by: Adam | August 13, 2008 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Why isn't GM building compressed air powered cars when they are DRIVING them NOW in India??

America used compressed air powered coal trains successfully in the mines, why not in cars?

Oh yeah - I forgot Detroit won't build anything they didn't invent! Congress should force GM, Ford, and Chrysler to licence currently available compressed air powered engine technology from Australia, India, and France where compressed air vehicles are currently being engineered and built.

The US version arrives in 2010, 95 mpg, 800 mile range, seats six, $18,000.

Oil is too valuable to be burned as a fuel. We need it for lubrication, pharmacuticals, and plastics.

Posted by: JBE | August 13, 2008 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Don't waste my time with photo opportunities and empty speeches. Dan will get my vote if he can put action behind his words. You lost the last election to walsh.

What has he done in the mean time to help make our district get better? I'm tired of the same old I'm not a politician speech, this is what I can do. Sweetland has a proven track record. Did he have an opportunity to speak at this function or was it closed to one canidate?

I'd be willing to bet with the UAW it was a closed session.

Posted by: Action | August 14, 2008 10:50 PM | Report abuse

i may be out of date but as i remember NYS is a net exporter of energy, the power corp's can make more on open market than using it to benefit the citizens who's taxes help support them. contact power auth. for figures.
also try the finger lakes area. they have economic problems as well. also many fine winery's as a bonus, if that matters. and the area is beautiful.
no reporting about congel's 'mistake on the lake' yet? 20yrs in the making!(mostly in making congel wealthy w/tax $)

Posted by: dave fahey | August 15, 2008 1:45 PM | Report abuse

but the area will be saved by congel's 'mistake by the lake'. see the steel, it means jobs!
try the finger lakes, you may want to do an in depth piece on the many fine winery's there.

Posted by: dave fahey | August 15, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

nys was a net exporter of electric power, much of which is sold on open mkt. instead of benefiting the taxpayers who's tax $ support them.
but why concentrate on down side. write about congel's 'mistake by the lake', that steel means jobs in another 20 yrs!
oh yea, intensive investigative work to be done among fine winery's in finger lakes area!

Posted by: dave fahey | August 15, 2008 2:13 PM | Report abuse

New York exports energy? Please, we pay just as much for or electric and gas as anyone in the country even though our town is 50 - 60 miles from Niagara Falls. The last I knew Niagara Falls could produce enough power for this state and probably Ohio too! It's all corporate politics.

Posted by: NOwens | August 17, 2008 9:25 PM | Report abuse

I was born, raised, and educated in Syracuse. I loved the place and proudly called it my hometown. I stayed on to start a family, and watched the industrial base of the city and others along the upstate Thruway steadily drift away along with friends and relatives.

Syracuse has decayed as a place to live and is on the brink of joining the third world, along with Utica, Rochester, Buffalo, etc. In 2000, I couldn't bear to watch it anymore, or justify the poor caliber of life forced on my family by the economic situation, and took a great job in Washington with the federal government. It really grieves me to watch the drain of well educated young Syracusans to other regions as well.

Until the elected officials in Albany realize that there are people north of Westchester County who are badly hurting economically and jumping ship from necessity, it will only continue. The New York State business tax code is a major culprit in the exodus of light and heavy industry (and people), and is fifty years overdue for major overhaul.

As Governor Patterson noted recently, the Wall street declines of late are crippling state revenues. Tourism, glib political wannabes and federal welfare won't make up the difference but personal and business tax breaks could start to turn it around.

Posted by: Hank Appleton | August 20, 2008 8:09 AM | Report abuse

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