Friday, January 23, 2009

New York, New York

Unless hermetically sealed in a dungeon you know that Governor David Paterson finally named Representative Kirsten Gillibrand to succeed Hillary Clinton. First let me address the fallout with respect to the disastrous public relations courtship between Caroline Kennedy, Governor David Paterson and his staff. Both Paterson and Kennedy are diminished from the entire process.

I never believed Kennedy was appropriate for the position or capable of withstanding the rough and tumble of New York politics. To her credit, Kennedy has been a citizen advocate for progressive causes and survived the public relations goldfish bowl far better than several other Kennedys who became entangled in scandals. Yet it was quite apparent during her “listening tour” that Kennedy did not have the right stuff.

Furthermore, Kennedy appeared to project a sense of entitlement about the position that was off putting. Other New York dynastic political figures such as Robert Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo repeatedly demonstrated toughness, the willingness to work for their support and the resilience to bounce back from self-inflicted wounds. Without those skills a politician has no shot in the unique New York media cauldron. Sadly, Kennedy’s image took a beating and this Camelot icon will never be looked upon the same way again. She asked for it but it’s regrettable nonetheless.

Putting Kennedy’s flaws aside however, Governor Paterson’s administration was graceless in publicly throwing her underneath the bus after she asked to no longer be considered. It was bad enough that Paterson appeared disorganized, narcissistic and inept during his own selection process. Even worse was his staff’s eagerness to kick Kennedy while she was down in order to salvage Paterson’s reputation. Yes, the New York Times reported that Kennedy had personal issues with respect to taxes and a household employee. It's also true that her public performances these past few weeks were uneven at best.

However, the New York media was already piling on and pouring more salt in Kennedy’s wounds only served to make Paterson appear small. It seems inevitable now that Paterson will be challenged in the 2010 Democratic primary. If Eliot Spitzer was a vindictive bull in a china shop then the previous 24 hours has exposed Paterson as a feckless barking dog with no teeth that cowardly refused to let Kennedy depart the stage with any semblance of dignity. It was Paterson’s fault the process with Kennedy went as far as it did in the first place. A putrid demonstration of leadership at a time when accountability and competence are needed most.

With respect to Representative Gillibrand, I am neither enthusiastic nor gnashing my teeth. I would have preferred a genuine liberal advocate such as state Senator Liz Krueger or Congressman Jerrold Nadler who unflinchingly opposed the Bush Administration’s worst civil liberties abuses. Gillibrand is a respectable choice but she’s no liberal and won’t be a counterweight to Chuck Schumer who is in bed with the banking industry, and also paved the way for Michael Mukasey to serve as George W. Bush’s Attorney General in spite of being pro-torture.

In 2006, I phonebanked for Gillibrand when she challenged four term Republican incumbent John Sweeney in New York’s conservative upstate 20th congressional district. Naturally, Gillibrand reflects the cultural mores of her upstate conservative constituents with respect to guns and is a member in good standing of the Blue Dog Coalition in the House of Representatives. Electing centrists such as Gillibrand was the price for securing a majority in the House and Gillibrand does have her good points too.

Gillibrand is a strong advocate of legislation to reinforce the National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Act to keep guns away from criminals. She also courageously supports same-sex marriage and that is not an easy position for any upstate legislator to assume. Gillibrand has been a reliable supporter of abortion rights, stem cell research, and the Children's Health and Medicare Protection Act. On fiscal matters she opposed the TARP bailout, supports extending the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and has a record of opposing Social Security privatization. In other words, Gillibrand has a centrist record. Pretty good on most social and civil libertarian issues but fiscally too conservative for my taste.

Gillibrand’s challenge now is persuade downstate urban voters like myself that she can represent the entire state’s diverse interests and views. Pro gun control congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy has indicated she will challenge Gillibrand in the Democratic 2010 primary. McCarthy as New Yorkers may recall first entered congress following the tragic shooting of her husband in 1993.

I’m pro gun control but will make my decision on whom to support over a wide spectrum of issues while evaluating Gillibrand’s performance. Robert Harding over at the Albany Project provides a useful guide about gun control with respect to upstate/downstate perspectives and Gillibrand in a post today that is worth reading.

Hopefully, there will be several Democratic primary challengers vigorously competing to provide options for both governor as well as senator. Party establishment figures often prefer the banality of “unity” but I’ve always believed that intra-party competition is healthy. Two years is a lifetime in politics and that is doubly true given our current economy. In the meantime, New York desperately needs both Paterson to quickly get his act together and Gillibrand to grow into her new job with dispatch. Otherwise New Yorkers will need viable options to consider as replacements.

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