High drama in N.Y. Senate pick
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NEW YORK -- Could this be an episode of Family Feud, New York style?
The contestants are: Clintons, Kennedys and Cuomos, America's most famous Democratic dynasties. The prize they're sniffing around is: a U.S. Senate seat, soon to be vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Last week, Caroline Kennedy made it clear that she, like Andrew Cuomo, wants Mrs. Clinton's spot after she ascends to secretary of state. Famously press-shy, Ms. Kennedy created a political spectacle -- part civics, part soap opera and, for its audience worldwide, utterly captivating.
But first some back story for this saga of ambition, divorce and betrayal.
Ms. Kennedy's cousin was once married to Mr. Cuomo, and it ended badly.
Ms. Kennedy and her uncle Ted once endorsed Mrs. Clinton's opponent (a.k.a Barack Obama) and, well, for Mrs. Clinton that ended badly.
Mrs. Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, and Mr. Cuomo's dad, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, clashed as far back as five presidential campaigns ago -- and apparently some of that enmity still lingers.
Appearing last week on NBC's "Today" show, Andrew Cuomo's ex-wife, Kerry Kennedy, seconded her daughter's observation: "This is very awkward, Mom."
Now to the latest chapter:
Caroline Kennedy became an instant front-runner last week to be the senator from New York, and the hometown media has been gushing, and power brokers like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada are falling over each other to endorse her.
Some Clintonistas, as Hillary Clinton's core advocates are known, are gagging at Ms. Kennedy's unalloyed ambition. But Mrs. Clinton sent out word Tuesday that they should put a lid on it, presumably because her new boss (a.k.a. the president-elect) is a big fan of Ms. Kennedy, and because Mrs. Clinton has Senate confirmation hearings ahead and doesn't want anyone smudging her image.
As for the voters, frankly, until the next election in 2010 they're irrelevant.
For now, only one voter counts -- and he is New York Gov. David Paterson, another dynastic politician whose dad, Basil, was once a major power in New York politics.
Mr. Paterson gets to pick Mrs. Clinton's successor knowing that person's name will appear above his on the ballot when he asks voters, for the first time, to elect him governor. (He was Elliot Spitzer's lieutenant before Spitzer quit after being busted for consorting with prostitutes.)
"As we always say, politics in New York is a different ballgame," said pollster Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion, adding, "Illinois may be making headlines, but it's still the Second City."
But this race to win Mr. Paterson's favor is not about fame alone. The governor -- already dealing with a $15 billion budget gap on top of all this -- has to weigh a web of parochial considerations promoted by clamoring special interests who want: A woman! A Latino! An Upstater!
"David Paterson is now the undisputed heavyweight champion of no-win situations," said Democratic political analyst Dan Gerstein.
In the next few weeks insiders suggest that Ms. Kennedy, who lives in a Park Avenue ZIP Code where the mail is sorted and hand-delivered by doormen, has to prove she has the appetite to mix in with apple farmers and union chiefs, and to maneuver in the clubby male-dominated atmosphere of the U.S. Senate. On Wednesday, she got off to a somewhat wobbly start during meetings with mayors in Syracuse and Rochester.
And Mr. Cuomo has to decide if he really wants the job. If he were to back off now, it would make it easier for Mr. Paterson to pick Ms. Kennedy, who if nothing else is a proven fundraiser having brought in $65 million from private donors to help New York City schools.
Mr. Cuomo has been uncharacteristically quiet.
Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Cuomo has successfully moved beyond criticism that he got where he is through nepotism. A lot of people in politics just plain don't like him.
"As much as [Mr. Cuomo's] rubbed some people the wrong way, his approval as attorney general is through the roof, and he's the only one with a real record of accomplishment in Washington," Mr. Gerstein said.
Mr. Cuomo ran the Department of Housing and Urban Development during Bill Clinton's administration; in 2002, he pulled out when he was losing a primary race to fill his father's shoes in the governor's mansion; but in 2006 when he was elected attorney general, he showed he could win statewide.
Which is why one likely GOP candidate would prefer Ms. Kennedy as an opponent. She lacks experience in government and would motivate Republican fundraising.
Not that U.S. Rep. Pete King, a quintessentially rough-and-tumble New York politician, has a say in this, but he is eagerly forthcoming, "Some mainstream Democrat with a proven record would just not attract the national media, make this a superstar race, the way Caroline Kennedy will.
"I mean, would the L.A. Times be calling me if I was running against Kirsten Gillibrand?"
Congresswoman Kirsten Elizabeth Rutnik Gillibrand, graduate of Dartmouth College, University of California, Los Angeles, law school and the daughter of two prominent attorneys from Albany, was elected in 2006 to represent the 20th Congressional district. She quickly earned a fine reputation and proved herself adept at fundraising.
"But I'm talking about raising $30 [million] to $40 million right off the bat just to get into a Senate race," Mr. King said. "Can a Kirsten Gillibrand do that? Caroline Kennedy can just because of her social life all these years in New York -- she has the whole power structure behind her."
But Mr. King, the son of a police officer, says Ms. Kennedy probably doesn't know if she'll take to the political arena. "I have nothing against her," Mr. King said. "I'm even surprised at the resentment of Democrats taking shots at her. But these are the people schlepping back and forth to D.C. every week, fighting with reporters, fighting with special interests, getting their heads knocked in, and suddenly someone who has never gotten her nails scratched gets anointed."
This is a woman who long avoided the public -- a seemingly shy princess of Camelot who moved with her reclusive mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and younger brother, John Jr., to Manhattan's Upper East Side a year after her father, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. She later graduated from Radcliffe College at Harvard University and Columbia University Law School; she married Edward Schlossberg but never officially changed her name. She wrote and edited books and became a fixture not only at the opening of the American Ballet Company but also on the walk to school with her daughters and at her son's basketball scrimmages in sweaty public school gyms.
While Ms. Kennedy remained close to Uncle Ted, the iconic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy from Massachusetts, who walked her down the aisle and whom she reportedly speaks to several times a week, she only began stepping out as a high-profile political surrogate earlier this year after delivering a timely endorsement of Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton.
"She always asked campaign staff on the ground how she could make the most out of her appearances, and apparently she did," said Joel Benenson, a former New York political writer and the lead pollster for the Obama campaign.
Despite the collective swooning over Ms. Kennedy this past week, it's far from certain that she is a shoo-in to become the star senator from New York.
A source close to Mr. Paterson said the governor won't be bullied into a decision.
The family feud and the saga continue, but there could be a twist. Word has it that the younger Mr. Cuomo might not have the killer instinct when it comes to Caroline.
Then again this is politics.
In New York.
A whole different ballgame.
First Published December 21, 2008 12:00 am