ALBANY - A "war zone." A "death zone." A place that's "dying, just absolutely dying."
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hasn’t spared words when it comes to upstate New York, repeatedly using a handful of moribund adjectives and phrases when he refers to the economic strength of the area north of New York City's suburbs.
Trump's latest comments -- he likened upstate to a "death zone" during a radio interview Thursday -- drew rebukes on social media and from some upstate leaders, particularly as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly stressed his administration's focus on the region.
But the comments also draw attention to the unsteady growth in many areas of the state, highlighted by a report last month from the state Comptroller's Office that found upstate suffers from job growth that lags the nation and still hasn’t recovered fully from the Great Recession.
Jennifer Conway, president and CEO of the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce, said broad negative comments about upstate’s economic strength help create a “perception that’s not reality.”
“There are challenges, but we’re struggling with things that people across the country are struggling with,” Conway said. “The broad idea that upstate New York has been abandoned and just is completely dying is so not true.”
Several of Trump’s negative portrayals of the upstate economy have focused on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's record in the state as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the trade deal signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Trump wants to repeal the trade agreement, which allows for tax-free trading of products among the United States, Canada and Mexico.
In an Aug. 10 speech in Abingdon, Virginia, Trump said NAFTA has been a “disaster,” blaming the loss of manufacturing jobs on the trade deal. Frustration with upstate's struggles, he said, helped push him to a landslide victory in New York's April primary, when he won every congressional district but one.
“It’s been a disaster not only for Virginia, but virtually every state,” Trump said. “Upstate New York, it looks like a war zone. That’s why I won by so much.”
Like many areas of the state, manufacturing jobs have declined significantly in New York over more than two decades, from about 850,500 in January 1993 to about 452,100 last month, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The decline, however, predated NAFTA.
New York had more than 1 million manufacturing jobs at the start of 1990, steadily declining to 854,000 by the end of 1992, according to the federal data.
The state’s proximity to Canada, meanwhile, makes the country the highest receiver of New York exports.
A total of $14.9 billion in exports from New York went to Canada in 2015, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s about 18 percent of the state’s total international exports.
About $3.2 billion in New York exports went to Mexico, the data shows.
The state imports more from both countries, however. Last year, $18 billion in imports to New York originated from Canada. About $3.7 billion came from Mexico.
In his report last month, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli noted jobs in upstate New York – defined by him as the entire portion of the state north of Putnam and Rockland counties – declined from 3.1 million in June 2008 to 2.9 million in February 2010 during the recession.
Now, upstate jobs are at about 3 million, not quite to the pre-recession total.
“It should come as no surprise that a closer look reveals pockets of the state still have a long way to go to catch up,” DiNapoli said in a statement last month.
Cuomo, a Democrat, has touted the work his administration has done to try and rejuvenate upstate New York, pointing to Buffalo as a success story.
The city, which lost 10 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010, has seen its job growth accelerate in recent years, boosted in part by major state investments.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat, was one of the first to challenge Trump’s comments.
"Perhaps if (Trump) spent any real time in upstate NY, especially Buffalo, he would see how vibrant it is," Poloncarz tweeted Thursday, not long after Trump's latest comment.
Trump traveled across upstate New York during the lead up to the April primary, holding rallies in the Buffalo, Rochester and Albany areas, among others. He has pledged to bring back manufacturing jobs to the region.
"I look at the devastation – the devastation of no jobs," Trump said in an April interview. "You look at the empty buildings, the empty factories and all. What I’m doing is I’m bringing jobs back."