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Around the Country, Economic Starts and Stops

Gwen Ifill talks to PBS correspondents from New York, Virginia and California about the state of local economies.

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    The polls, pollsters and politicians are keeping close tabs on the ebb and flow of public opinion this year, and so are we.

    For that, we will turn periodically to public broadcasting correspondents around the country.

    Tonight, they are Julie Philipp, news director for WXXI in Rochester, New York, Cathy Lewis, an anchor at WHRV in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and John Myers, the Sacramento statehouse bureau chief for San Francisco's KQED.

    John Myers, I want to start with you, because it's — the numbers that Jim and David Chalian were talking about a few minutes ago are quite interesting. And they're just as interesting in California, where 53 percent say the nation is headed in the wrong direction, but 54 percent have a positive view of President Obama.

    How does that work out?

  • JOHN MYERS, KQED Public Radio:

    Yes, I think it's an interesting split decision there, Gwen. I agree with you.

    I mean, the president certainly still popular, as you said, here in California. I mean, we are a blue state, a plurality of Democrats here in California. You know, it's hard to know exactly what is driving that pessimism, though, on the wrong-track figure. I have a feeling that a lot of it has to do with the economy here in California.

    We still have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, 12.4 percent. We have a state budget crisis yet again. We have had about $60 billion of deficits over the last three years. We have got a $19 billion problem now, which I think is dragging down the sectors in a lot of parts of the state.

    And so I think there is this concern, this gloom. And, so, you wonder if Californians feel as though the president is the guy who is doing the right stuff, but whether they're not more concerned about what's happening on Capitol Hill and what's happening here at the statehouse in Sacramento.


    So, more of the pessimism has to do with what's happening on a local level, whether it's money for schools or the jobless rate locally?



    And keep in mind, too, that's one of the things that is actually — while California's problems are bad now — and, again, I said a $19 billion problem that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators are trying to resolve right now — while those problems are bad, they could get worse.

    For example, we know that stimulus funding has been very important to a lot of states. It's been very important in California, especially for K-12 education. A lot of the stimulus funds are set to expire very soon. And I think that poses a lot of fears, you know, for schools and for local communities all across California that we haven't seen the worst of the worst. And I think that, you know, could explain some of that pessimism.


    Well, let's go across the country to Rochester, New York.

    In Upstate New York, Julie, it's really always much tougher than it is, less optimistic than it is in the rest of the state or the rest of the country. How does this translate now?


    The most recent consumer confidence poll from the Siena College Research Institute shows that all of New York, and particularly Upstate New York, are very pessimistic about the economy.

    They are not planning to buy cars. They're not planning to buy furniture. They're not planning to make any expenses. And this is across the board, all demographics. And when you ask them about the future, you know, what they expect down the road, it's even worse.


    Well, what's interesting to me about that as well is because you also have a budget gridlock that is happening in your statehouse in Albany. How much of that is driving this attitude?


    I don't think this segment is long enough to even begin to talk about how dysfunctional the state government has been. And this is a longstanding problem going back a decade or more.

    And New Yorkers, while not surprised, are certainly not heartened by what's happening in our capital, Albany, now, because they are just unable to agree or even talk in public about a budget. The only reason we have any sort of budget is that, when the government was about to be shut down, the governor started putting forth these — these emergency spending bills to keep it going.

    They passed those. And the very frustrated Governor Paterson then started putting pieces of his budget proposal on those emergency spending bills, so that we would have somewhat of a budget out there. But it's not a complete budget. There is no revenue bill to decide how — you know, how — what taxes and revenues will be coming in to help balance the budget, which we started the negotiations with over $9 billion in the red. So, it's just not helping the matter at all.


    Well, Cathy Lewis, down in Hampton Roads, Virginia, you have a big military presence there, and presumably a cushion against some of economic woes we have seen being elsewhere around the country. How are people — what is the pessimistic/optimistic balance there?

  • CATHY LEWIS, WHRV Public Radio:

    You know, I think it's very similar, Gwen, to what my colleague in California was saying. There is this — this sense that things are not terrific at the moment, but there doesn't seem to be the propensity to blame President Obama.

    And, of course, as you note, this is a region that is well cushioned from the economic ups and downs by the defense industry, which continues to crank along pretty well here. We should note that our Old Dominion University economists just released a report that said stimulus funding here and the impact here has been about preserving jobs, not so much about creating new ones, that really that's more of the emphasis, is keeping the jobs that we have.

    And there's, of course, great concern as well, as my colleagues have noted, about the expiration of those funds and what happens on the other end of that. So, there is some anxiety moving forward around that.


    Well, Cathy, follow up on that, because there's been some debate here in Washington about the extension of jobless benefits, or the failure to extend jobless benefits. Is that something people pay attention to, or people are discontent, and that discontent is focused on Washington? Or is it statewide?


    I think you only find that level of discontent if you yourself are affected by it. That's my sense on the radio program that I do every day.

    I don't hear people talking as much about that. What I hear them talking about is the hiring and the jobs are not coming back as quickly as they had hoped that they would — that they would. We certainly have construction folks who thought that building was going to pick up much faster than it did. We have about $1.4 billion in stimulus funds at work in the community at the moment.

    But builders are saying it's really not picking up as quickly as they thought it would. And, in some respects, I think what we're starting to talk about here is sort of a new normal. We have talked about that with regard to the housing market. We have talked about that with regard to construction as well.


    John Myers, we just heard David Chalian talk about how scared any incumbent of any party ought to be right now, as this sort of discontent begins to trickle down.

    Does this have practical impact that you can see in on a local level or a statewide level for these 2010 midterms? You have got a big governor's race, a Senate race, a couple of Senate races, and you also — or a Senate race — and you also have a lot of local races and congressional races up in the air.


    Yes, I think it's going to be fascinating, Gwen.

    I mean, let's take that Senate race first, because we also — always see these national political races, you know, with these interesting parallels and what's going on in a state and what's going on in the country.

    So, Barbara Boxer, the incumbent state U.S. senator from California, up against Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, you can — better believe that the economy is going to be part of that. I'm sure President Obama will probably be back out here campaigning for Senator Boxer. So, you will have an issue there.

    And the governor's race, as you talked about, is going to be fascinating. I mean, I think most people in California feel as though what they want is leadership. And they're looking for leadership. I think that explains why Arnold Schwarzenegger's approval ratings have been so low here. They don't think he's been the right leader.

    And so you've got — in our race for governor, you have got a former CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate, against a former governor who wants to be governor again, Jerry Brown, as the Democrat. They both are preaching leadership. You've got those congressional races you talked about.

    I think this is a really fascinating time to watch this intersection of a really, really struggling economy and these political dynamics, about how you solve it, what you do, and what it means to be a leader and get out.


    Julie Philipp, do you see that same kind of intersection in New York State as well about to collide as we get toward the fall?


    Well, it's interesting.

    You know, the early polls are showing some anti-incumbent fervor, but New York has had anti-incumbent fervor for probably a decade now. And when November comes, it rarely plays out. Usually, the incumbents remain in office.

    We're only seeing little pockets of grassroot activity, a couple of Tea Party rallies. One group planned a protest this weekend at one of the U.S. senator's houses to talk about jobs. But, really, we're not seeing a whole lot of interest yet even in the races, none of which are even really considered to be highly competitive. So, it's actually kind of quiet here in New York.


    How — how can that be? Don't you have a big governor's race heating up there? And isn't that affected by what we're seeing down here? Not at all?


    Well, what has happened is Governor Paterson originally faced a primary challenge from Andrew Cuomo. Or that was how it was expected to play out.

    Governor Paterson ended up dropping out of the race in order to try to get a budget passed. He felt perhaps he could be more effective if he weren't a candidate running. So, that left Andrew Cuomo on his own against Rick Lazio, who is a credible candidate, but at this point not a real serious threat. So, that race is not turning out to be as highly interesting to voters as originally thought to be.


    Cathy Lewis, how does it look politically down in Virginia?


    I think we have to very interesting races shaping up.

    Certainly, one is in Hampton Roads in the 2nd District, where we have a first-term Democratic congressman, Glenn Nye. He had six Republicans lined up to run in the primary. The gentleman who was elected out of that process, Scott Rigell, is already being accused of being a RINO.

    And we had — we did have as well…


    Republican in name only, RINO.


    In name only. Thank you.




    And we did as well have — which is complex in this community — we did as well have some Tea Party activity. The Tea Party endorsed a different candidate, and then, at least shortly after the election, decided not to endorse the Republican nominee. So, that's a very interesting race.

    The other one, of course, is Congressman Perriello over in the 5th District in Central Virginia. He knocked off a long-term Republican last time around. And he is in what — a very similar circumstance, having had, I think, six or seven Republicans lined up to fight for his seat.

    So, those two are very interesting, particularly in the 2nd, because Congressman Nye voted against the health care bill as a Democrat. So, some Democrats are very unhappy with him for that. I think the take on the part of strategists was that he thought perhaps it would help him with Republicans, but that may not be the case. So, it will be very interesting to see how that one works out.


    And one of the first things the president said today announcing his new budget chair was to talk about health care and defend the health care bill.

    Listen, thank you all very much, John Myers, Julie Philipp, and Cathy Lewis, for providing us the intersection of the economy and politics.


    You're welcome.


    Thanks, Gwen.

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