New York Senate Politics: A Movie We’ve Seen Before

Posted December 17, 2008 at 11:40am

New Yorkers will be forgiven if they feel like they’ve seen this movie before:

A Senate seat suddenly being coveted by a very famous person. More conventional would-be candidates forced to yield, with bruised feelings, recriminations and political fallout to follow.

Caroline Kennedy’s desire to replace Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the Senate if Clinton is confirmed as secretary of State conjures up history in myriad ways — not just the specter of Camelot and her father’s long-ago presidency, but the history of previous Empire State Senate battles.

Kennedy’s maneuvering to win the Senate appointment has echoes of her uncle Robert F. Kennedy’s 1964 New York Senate campaign — and of Clinton’s own Senate bid in 2000. In each case, RFK and Clinton, newcomers to the state and novices as candidates, blew their opposition out of the water.

The difference this time is that there is no election on the immediate horizon. Instead, Clinton’s seat will be filled via appointment by Gov. David Paterson (D), who has said he will wait to name a successor until the Senate confirms her nomination to Foggy Bottom.

But Kennedy’s publicly stated interest in the Senate seat puts enormous pressure on Paterson and makes the lesser-known would-be Senators — from Democratic House Members like Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Kirsten Gillibrand and Brian Higgins to other accomplished Democrats like state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown — wonder what they can possibly do to slow a runaway train that is being powered by a breathless media.

“Since when has this become the star seat?” moaned one seasoned Washington, D.C., operative who has worked in New York politics and government and has close ties to one of the Democrats interested in the Senate appointment.

Since when? Since RFK, rebuffed by Lyndon B. Johnson in his desire to become LBJ’s vice president in 1964, waltzed into the Empire State just weeks before the September nominating process and professed his desire to be Senator, snuffing out then-Rep. Sam Stratton’s bid for the Democratic nomination.

Since Clinton, with a newfound political sheen buffed, ironically, by her husband’s infamous sex scandal, came to New York and nudged Rep. Nita Lowey (D) out of the Senate picture in 2000.

Caroline Kennedy’s selection is by no means guaranteed. And some New York pols, whether publicly or privately, have been unafraid to snipe at the prospect of her being appointed to the Senate.

But it is hard to imagine that her interest would have become public if the appointment wasn’t all but a certainty. The Kennedy family, even outside of its home base of Massachusetts, has very substantial powers of persuasion and very long memories.

Although she needs to only win the vote of one man — Paterson — Kennedy is taking to the hustings this week, with a stop planned in Syracuse and another tentatively scheduled for Buffalo, where Brown will play chaperone. She has also been reaching out to an array of state and local political figures in recent days, an amusing image for anyone who knows the cast of characters.

Even if Kennedy’s appointment is beginning to seem inevitable, this movie, like any good one, has several intriguing plot twists, defined by family ties and family feuds, egos, and the tribal warfare that defines New York Democratic politics.

Among the subplots:

• The Schumer Factor: After having to share the spotlight with Clinton for eight years, can the publicity-hound Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) cope with Caroline Kennedy as his junior Senator? The answer, apparently, is yes.

Schumer said this week that there are a dozen people vying to be Senator, that all are qualified to serve and that he could coexist with any of them. An even bigger indication is that Kennedy has hired Josh Isay, Schumer’s former campaign manager and chief of staff, to squire her around the state as she pursues the Senate seat.

Isay’s firm, Knickerbocker SKD, has counted among its clients Schumer, Brown and the Rev. Al Sharpton, and one of Isay’s partners, Jennifer Cunningham, is very close to Cuomo and was the top strategist in his 2006 attorney general campaign.

• Consultant Wars: While Kennedy has inked Isay, Maloney has signed Bill Lynch to helm her bid to win Paterson’s support. Lynch, a former Democratic National Committee vice chairman, was the political brains and brawn behind David Dinkins, New York’s first and only African-American mayor and a man who is like an uncle to Paterson.

But if Maloney thought Lynch had an entrée into the governor, she may have been mistaken. According to sources, Lynch and Paterson had a falling out after Lynch, on the day in March that Paterson became governor, advised Paterson to confess his marital infidelities to a newspaper columnist. Paterson took office amid a sex scandal involving his predecessor and associates have not been happy with the fallout from his confession, and they blame Lynch.

But beyond whatever tenuous connections Lynch may have with Paterson, he is nevertheless every bit the savvy political operator that Isay is.

• Family Ties and Family Feuds: You have the Kennedys. You have the Cuomos. You have the fact that Andrew Cuomo used to be married to a Kennedy. You have the fact that Cuomo, whether he covets the Senate appointment or not, would like to be governor and has the power to investigate any whiff of scandal emanating from the Paterson administration.

You have the Clintons, who once envied and hung out with the Kennedys, but who became enraged when Caroline Kennedy and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) endorsed Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton for president.

And don’t forget that Paterson, the first African-American governor of New York and the first legally blind governor in the nation, is also a political legacy, the son of Basil Paterson, who was every bit the political trailblazer that his son is.

• The Democratic Ticket: Whoever is appointed to the Senate will run for a two-year term in 2010 on a ticket that includes Schumer, who will be seeking a third term; Paterson; the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor (the post is currently vacant); Cuomo, assuming he is running for re-election as AG; and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

There is no Hispanic on that ticket. There is no woman on that ticket. There is no one from Upstate on that ticket (DiNapoli is from Long Island; the others are from New York City). Kennedy’s appointment would fill one of the voids, but none of the others. How delicately balanced a ticket does Paterson need to ensure his re-election and Democratic harmony in 2010 and beyond? Does Caroline Kennedy, for all her celebrity, actually help him politically?

Stay tuned.