Caroline's Shine Obscures Other Hopefuls

Officially, Gov. David Paterson's main focus is the state's fiscal crisis, not the decision about whom to appoint if, as expected, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is confirmed as secretary of state.

Privately, his advisers say that's close to true -- he's spending more time on the state's severe economic woes than on the Senate selection.

Still, the Democratic governor, who has said he won't pick a replacement until after Clinton is confirmed, continues to talk to top Democrats in New York and Washington. His staff will vet the short list of potential replacements, using the criminal and financial background checks adopted by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and continued under the Paterson administration.

In recent weeks Paterson has bristled at the constant media focus on the possibility that he will choose Caroline Kennedy, whose name first emerged as a potential replacement for Clinton in early December and who formally announced her interest in a phone call to the governor on Dec. 15.

When she had coffee with a labor leader at a Manhattan hotel, the photo ran in The New York Times. Her visit to Harlem to eat chicken and collard greens at Sylvia's soul food restaurant with the Rev. Al Sharpton made headlines around the globe.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen other contenders, including state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and several experienced members of Congress, are pushing their names and records but gaining little public attention even as supporters argue they are more qualified and have earned a shot at being New York's junior senator.

"Everybody remembers the little girl in the White House," said Quinnipiac University pollster Maurice Carroll. Archival photos showing President John F. Kennedy's daughter riding a pony and playing under the Oval Office desk have flooded the media, jogging memories of those Camelot moments.

That star power hasn't dimmed much for the 51-year-old author, lawyer and philanthropist. And that has upset New York's political world, whose players are used to working the local party bosses, rolling up their sleeves to support others' campaigns and generally paying dues.

Just this week, reporters pored over campaign contribution records and determined that Kennedy hasn't donated much to local and statewide campaigns.

The only New York campaign contribution made in her name since 1999 was $1,000 to New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, according state Board of Elections records.

It's a different story on the national level, where Kennedy has donated $28,100 to political campaigns since 1997, according to Federal Elections Commission records. She gave $4,600 to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, $1,000 to Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd in 1997, $5,000 to Clinton's Senate campaigns, and $2,300 to Clinton's presidential campaign in 2007, which was apparently refunded in August after Kennedy backed Obama. Other donations were to the Democratic campaigns of her relatives and to political organizations including Emily's List.

On paper, the other hopefuls present a strong challenge to Kennedy, even if most can't eclipse the attention she's getting. Kennedy's rivals for the job are also working the phones and lunching with Paterson's advisers, touting their experience and records in public service as New York faces hard times. They're trying to press the point that Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York bluntly made last week on "Face the Nation": "They're Kennedys. They're all boats, but is she a sailboat when we need a battleship?"

It was Kennedy herself who on Friday in an interview with The Associated Press underscored the difference between herself and the veteran congressional members and local elected officials vying for the prestigious post. She acknowledged she will have to work twice as hard as others because of her famous name, calling herself "an unconventional candidate."

To that, former New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro replied, "I think it's great she understands she will have a tougher time." The one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee has publicly urged Paterson to strongly consider experienced members of Congress for the Senate seat.

Yet when Ferraro joined Congress in 1979, she had no prior experience as an elected official. A Queens prosecutor, she joked that her daughter knew more about Washington than she did, thanks to a school trip to the nation's capital.

Now, Ferraro argues that it's no time for political neophytes. Paterson made it clear this week that he needs immediate help in Washington to land a stimulus package essential to digging New York out of a historic fiscal crisis, she said.

"He's right," Ferraro said. "What's best for the state is for a senator to hit the ground running."

The question for Paterson, whose advisers say he wants someone with the political heft to counter a possible 2010 Republican ticket headed by Rudy Giuliani for governor, is whether stronger candidates are being obscured by the glare of the media spotlight on Kennedy.

"There aren't too many people who can command the attention she's getting," said Doug Muzzio, professor of politics at Baruch College.

But he added, "You really need some familiarity with the institution to hit the ground running. Also, you've got to know what you're representing. And if you don't know New York other than the East Side of Manhattan, you can't adequately represent the state."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us