One year later, Rochester still backs Clinton -- warily City's vote in 1992 mirrored nation's

October 31, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Up here, on the shores of Lake Ontario, the president of the United States can seem far removed from the lives of everyday people.

But as John Grayko, 45, watched President Clinton outline his health care plan on television last month, Mr. Grayko felt his skin tingle and his heart pound with emotion.

"I fervently believed in what he was saying," said Mr. Grayko, who lost his health insurance for 18 months when he was laid off as a data processor. "People talk about whether health insurance for everyone is a right. The word I would use is necessity. It's an absolute necessity."

One year ago this week, this city and its suburbs, like the rest of America, put its trust -- just barely -- in the man from Hope, Ark. People do not seem to regret their votes, at least not yet.

Nationally, Mr. Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote to George Bush's 38 percent. Texas billionaire Ross Perot polled 19 percent. Those figures were replicated almost exactly in New York's 28th congressional district, which includes Rochester and most of the surrounding neighborhoods in Monroe County.

If there's one obvious pattern to people's attitudes here, it's that those who voted for Mr. Clinton are sticking by him, although with some reservations, while those who voted for Mr. Bush remain suspicious of the new president. The Perot people are still disgruntled at everyone.

"You get a lot of jokes about Clinton, but people are willing to wait," said Richard Fenno, a political scientist at the University of Rochester. "I know I'm willing to give him a break. His test is health care."

Rochester's recent typical voting patterns and its trend-setting history suggest that, if Mr. Clinton's act plays here, it will play in the rest of the country.

"It's like a laboratory," said Tom Fitzpatrick, executive director of the local Democratic Party.

Some changes in place

This city has already implemented many of the cost-cutting health care measures the president wants -- but still has tens of thousands of people without insurance.

It's the birthplace of several worldwide conglomerates -- but two of them, Xerox and Gannett, have relocated their corporate headquarters, and the largest, Kodak, plans to lay off 20,000 workers.

It is also a city with an unemployment rate below 5 percent -- and yet the welfare rolls have never been longer, and violent crime is soaring.

Rochester also has a proud tradition of progressive politics. It was home to 19th century crusaders Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass -- but Mr. Clinton's Democratic ticket did not win a majority here. And the indications are that the public, while more patient perhaps than the Washington establishment, is judging him not by what he says, but by what he's able to accomplish.

"People are still angry," says Gordon Black, a national pollster based in Rochester. "And they have a right to be. This is a system that is not functioning."

Last year, with Kodak in turmoil, voters here said their primary fear was the apparent loss of jobs -- and the health insurance that goes along with them.

One year later, violent crime has forced its way onto that short list.

Top concerns: Drugs, crime

Crime and drugs. It's what you hear everywhere in Rochester, as in the rest of America, where 80 percent of the people now agree with the president's proposal to add more police officers.

Another young life was lost here last Wednesday, bringing the city's record-pace total for the year to 54. It was a scenario that is all-too-familiar in every city in the nation.

"Such a waste," said Anita Abert, a 30-year-old waitress and bartender. "The crime, the killing, the guns -- too much violence, even in the schools. It's terrible."

The other predominant issue here continues to be health care, although the talk is not all on Mr. Clinton's side.

"Clinton's health care plans are of almost an obsessive interest up here," said Mr. Fitzpatrick. "The president said, 'Let the debate on health care begin,' and Rochester took him up on that."

The reason is that the greater Rochester area -- a six-county area with a population of nearly 1 million -- has a revolutionary approach to health care that is being cited by the Clinton administration as a model.

A generation ago, the captains of Rochester industry convinced Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Rochester to use its near monopoly in the region to keep a lid on health care costs. The city's power brokers, in conjunction with the local hospital boards and physicians' groups, succeeded in blocking the construction of new hospitals, capped hospital revenues, divided up the functions of each hospital, and exerted control over the cost of medical procedures.

Impressive results

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