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Fair-weather senator can’t keep city date

AP photo U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has not made a stop in Dunkirk-Fredonia since 2016.

During a blustery, bone-chilling February morning last year, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer was joined by about a half-dozen north county veterans as he called for additional health-care assistance for those who may have been touched by Agent Orange during their service to the United States in Vietnam. As winds whipped across Memorial Park right off Lake Erie in Dunkirk, elected officials who joined him also spoke briefly in doing their best to keep the event moving.

Real-feel temperatures were somewhere between zero and the teens. But Schumer, who makes a concerted effort to visit all 62 state counties each year, did not disappoint in his appearance and message weeks before the COVID pandemic hit.

Our junior senator, however, appears to lack the same heartiness. Poor weather conditions — for the second time in four months — led to the cancellation of a planned stop in Dunkirk on Feb. 22 in front of City Hall.

A light snowfall on Central Avenue could have been the perfect backdrop for an issue vital to so many struggling in Western New York: making a call for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding in the next coronavirus relief package in order to provide critical assistance for low-income households and seniors.

But U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, as embattled state Gov. Andrew Cuomo might say, gives an impression of not being New York “tough” when it comes to dealing with the elements. For those of us who are accustomed to battling whiteouts and blizzard conditions each winter, not showing up because of a few snow flurries, drops of rain or overly breezy conditions can send a message of someone being inconvenienced.

Other current and past state officials have never blamed winter conditions for missing a shot to be seen and heard. In December 2013, Cuomo, Sen. Catharine Young and Assemblyman Andrew Goodell made the trek to Dunkirk during a Sunday morning snowstorm to announce a deal to keep the NRG Energy Inc. plant operating in the city. Those efforts, however, melted away three years later due to litigation and a move by the state toward renewables.

Cuomo’s next stop in Dunkirk — another cold February morning — was to announce the building of a state-of-the-art facility for Athenex that could bring 900 new jobs to the north county. As of this week, with news of an FDA setback on a breast-cancer treatment, how this plays out remains an uncertainty.

In the meantime, Gillibrand’s October no-show deserved even greater scrutiny. Scheduled to be at the Boardwalk — right near the City Pier — her staff canceled the planned press conference to support small business only 20 minutes before her appearance noting the conditions as being too inclement. To be fair, it was a dreary, rainy day, but nothing that would have impacted travel.

Her lack of appearances here could also be tied to her last re-election. In facing long-shot candidate Republican Chele Farley in 2018, Gillibrand won with 67% of the vote statewide. Here in Chautauqua County, which has not been kind to local Democrats in recent years, Farley beat the incumbent by a 1,500-vote margin.

Chele who?

Gillibrand did make a stop, however, in Falconer when conditions were more favorable last summer. While speaking at the FeedMore WNY Distribution Center, she discussed the issues of opening schools while also noting the importance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits during the pandemic.

“We’re in a tough spot,” she said in August. “Each state will make their own decisions, hopefully we will be able to open some of our schools because we have the resources and we have the ability to keep the classroom safe. My job is to try and get the resources into the state so that they can do that.”

What we have seen since then is a number of smaller districts, especially Chautauqua Lake, take all the right precautions in having in-person learning. Some of the larger districts, however, have utilized a hybrid system due to COVID-19 and concerns about spacing with those higher enrollment numbers.

Being indoors, especially during the potentially frigid months of December and January, led to loads of worry as COVID-19 infections were at the pinnacle of the pandemic — here and across the nation — in schools, businesses and health-care facilities. Today, as numbers wane, there’s hope with increased vaccinations taking place and spring being just around the corner.

As for Gillibrand’s calendar, if she wants to schedule a return to this county, our summers are spectacular. Just like that brilliant day last August in the south county, Dunkirk’s waterfront can be a perfect location for a future photo op when it is basking in sunshine.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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