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Top state Senate issue? Jobs, jobs, jobs

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Similarities--not differences--define the state Senate race in the 47th district, spanning Lewis and parts of Oneida and St Lawrence Counties.

Republican incumbent Joe Griffo and Democratic challenger Mike Hennessy both have deep roots in the area. Both have been elected to local government. And they both agree on the top issue:

Griffo says, "It's all economic."

"Jobs, jobs, jobs," says Hennessy.

Both candidates say the financial future of the region is linked to reduced taxes. And as Jonathan Brown reports, both are campaigning under the banner of "change."

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Both candidates say family history was a driving force in running for office. They say they wanted to give something back to the communities that shaped them.

Joe Griffo’s grandparents came from Italy to raise their families in Rome, NY. They died before he was elected mayor in 1991:

"I think it would have been a great source of pride and honor for them to know the community they worked in and lived in and believed in actually their grandchild would be selected by the people to run the city."

Mike Hennessy left the area for college and work as a stock broker. He’s now an Oneida County legislator, living in the small town of Sherrill:

"I’ve been back here for the past 20 years working in the financial industry and just like the fact that I can go out my back yard, walk around, play catch with my son, have a picnic without feeling crowded and just love the area."

These candidates have plans to revive the economy and bring jobs to the district.

Both say government has to shrink. Griffo says that’s just the beginning:

"We need to tax less, spend less. We need to ease regulations. We need to lower utility costs. We have a great quality of life here. We have an abundance of natural resources. And when you lower those costs and provide the physical environment we have, I think there’s great opportunity then to grow."

Hennessy wants a two-year moratorium on capital gains tax. He says this will increase financial trading and give businesses an incentive to hire:

"If we had capital gains taxes eliminated, it would increase economic activity helpful to putting money into private expansion, but most importantly getting new revenues from financial activities to the state treasury."

A state treasury, he says, that’s been depleted by the financial downturn. He’s also calling for the taxation of tobacco sold on Indian lands to non-native buyers.

In addition to these revenue generators, Hennessy wants New York government to cut six percent of its administrative workforce. And he claims this could save the state a billion dollars. He also wants public pensions re-negotiated, so workers contribute more to their own retirement and health benefits.

Both candidates’ plans could have a big impact on jobs here. A huge chunk of the North Country payroll comes from taxpayers. In some towns in the region, government jobs account for almost the entire cash economy.

Griffo says it’s possible to shrink the region’s public payroll without a rise in unemployment and while still providing key services:

"You have to look at this completely. What are we doing that we could do better? As we economize? How can we downsize? And that can be done through attrition. It’s not a badge of honor in my opinion to put people on the unemployment lines. So, I think you can downsize and still allow public opportunity and public service and public employment and still grow a strong private sector. Because without a strong private sector, we’re not going to be able to survive."

While generally echoing these ideas, Hennessy says the approach taken by Griffo and other Republicans has failed. And he says the region needs the more progressive financial attitude long-held by Democrats, like former president Bill Clinton:

"There is a part of this party that recognizes you can’t just throw money at problems. There is a role for the private sector in helping create real jobs and government’s job is really to try to unfetter the regulations that prevent them from growing."

The latest numbers from the state labor department show bringing jobs to the 47th district will require bucking the current trend. While the rate of unemployment dropped slightly from July to August of this year, it’s still much higher when compared to the same time in 2009.

Like so many races across the U.S. this year, the economy is likely to be the defining issue in this district. And with Griffo and Hennessy running on similar platforms, jobless numbers may be their fiercest opponent.

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