Tuesday, January 27, 2009

After a New York Minute

The debacle over Hillary Clinton's Senate seat mercifully ended, but not without significant political fallout. It was an unfortunate affair for pretty much everyone involved, particularly Governor David Paterson, who has been roundly criticized (and outright mocked) for his handling of the situation.

Caroline Kennedy's interest in the assignment was clearly problematic for Paterson. An accidental governor, he was sure to face a tough reelection battle in 2010 and probably a primary challenge as well. The Senate seat provided Paterson a way to clear a Democratic rival with designs on his job-- I'm thinking specifically of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, son of popular former Governor Mario, but I'm sure there are others-- but Kennedy's hat in the ring threatened that chance.

My expectation was for Paterson to wait for Kennedy to lose momentum and hopefully fall out of favor with the electorate, which never knew her as a pol. Things appeared to be headed that way as she struggled in initial interviews, and polls said voters preferred the attorney general for the job.

But then things took an ugly and surprising turn.

Just as Hillary Clinton was set to be confirmed as Secretary of State, whispers circulated that Kennedy would withdraw her name for personal reasons. Paterson could have left it at that. Instead, sources close to the governor trashed Kennedy, saying the Paterson would not have nominated her anyway because of nanny and/or tax and/or marriage problems. Though he denied knowing who was behind the leaks, Paterson was derided by everyone from Maureen Dowd to David Letterman, and the New York Post's Fred Dicker called him a liar in a detailed report.

Perhaps stranger still, Paterson did not nominate Cuomo, but chose Kristin Gillibrand instead. A one term Congresswoman with (according to Dowd) a less than stellar reputation in the House, Gillibrand has been a friend to the NRA, and stood with former Senate Republican Al D'Amato at her annoucement. However, She fills two of Paterson's main public criteria: She's a woman and from upstate. Presumably, this is Paterson's attempt to build support in the region and appeal to female voters.

But she fails on another key component. As an unfamiliar name, Sen. Gillibrand will have difficulty raising the money or generating the enthusiasm necessary for what will be at least three elections in two years: a primary battle before a special election in 2010, the election itself and the race when the seat's actual term expires in 2012.

She also leaves the 20th district ripe for a Republican pick- off in 2010.

I understand the desire for upstate influence, but about 63% of New Yorkers live in the city, on Long Island or in Westchester county. Picking a woman to fill the seat is also commendable, but Gillibrand's gender is not enough to ensure female support, and any gains may be outweighed by the fallout from liberals and those upset over the Kennedy smears.

Gillibrand deserves a fair shot as senator, and upstaters deserve a voice. But Paterson's decision remains curious. If he wanted to avoid naming Cuomo, who had a messy divorce from Kennedy's cousin Kerry in 2003, out of respect for the Kennedy clan, why the disparaging leaks? If he wanted to use the pick as a political opportunity why not a) pick Cuomo, b) pick Kennedy (with her Obama and Bloomberg ties, deep pockets and wealthy friends) or c) pick a place- holder closely allied with Hillary like my rep. Nita Lowey (although she denied interest in the job).

Whatever the answers, interesting questions abound. And the next couple of years in New York politics should be unpredictable.

Let's look at the winners and losers:

The losers are obvious.

  • Caroline Kennedy. She struggled through a three month political career.
  • New Yorkers. We lost out on a senator with unparalleled access to the president at a tumultuous time.
  • David Paterson. The year he has to live this down before he'll have to mount a primary campaign may not be enough, and he looks more vulnerable than ever.

The winners are less clear.
  • The Clintons. They can't be too upset that one of Obama's biggest primary backers has been embarrassed, and won't get Hillary's old job.
  • Chuck Schumer. Who is now, without a doubt, the top dog in New York politics, especially after Mayor Bloomberg and his camp stuck their necks out for Caroline.
  • Andrew Cuomo. He'd probably prefer to be governor, and, through a series of bizarre events going back to Eliot Spitzer, has a golden opportunity.

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