New York’s Political Smackdown 2000!

Hillary Unveils Hillary and New ‘Hillary’ Logo

Her speech took almost 30 minutes, but her message could have fit into three words: Call me Hillary.

For months now, from the earnest dawn of her “listening tour,” Hillary Rodham Clinton had been crisscrossing New York’s 62 counties in the urgent desire to grow familiar with the state. But at the giant pep rally of an announcement for her Senate bid, held at the gymnasium of the State University of New York at Purchase on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 6, the weight of her imperative had shifted. Job No. 1, it now seemed, as official as the candidacy itself, was for the state to grow familiar with her.

Familiar enough to know that she had discovered Skim Plus in the Chappaqua Grand Union. Familiar enough to confide, subtly herself and straightforwardly through her advisers, that her image, at least, needed to be melted down and recast in a softer plaster. (“It’s going to help people to focus on her as a human being rather than as a stereotype,” said campaign manager Bill de Blasio.) And certainly familiar enough to call her by her first name. Hence, the relentless rise of “Hillary.”

“Hillary” had long since taken up residence on her campaign press releases, where the chillier “First Lady” and “Mrs. Clinton” used to be. “Hillary” was printed in white on a huge navy-blue banner (actually, it was two slices of vinyl, frantically sewn together the night before, after the advance people unfurled the first one and realized that the name was far too small to see. This was no time for “Hillary” to drown in a deep blue sea.) Many “Hillarys” were block-lettered and painted in kindergarten colors on the stage flooring. “Hillary” was the subject of the film about her life. The film mentioned, among other things, her ability to play with boys, raise a daughter, toss a salad, incriminate Richard Nixon, murder a tune, save our children and laugh with embarrassing loudness in restaurants, but just barely mentioned–oh, you know, the quiet, misted-over fellow on the stage … Will, or Phil, or something.

No, Bill! That’s it. Government guy. Lecherous but effective.

Her speech had a punch line–”I am honored today to announce my candidacy for the United States Senate from New York!”–that could appear in Webster’s dictionary next to the word “anticlimax.” Contrary to its carpetbagger-slaying ambitions, it also had an agenda that could work just fine at a Senate announcement in California or Massachusetts, or any other significantly Democratic state. But that was kind of a plus, for the complete lack of surprises pouring from her mouth freed the mind to absorb the countless particles of interest radiating all around her.

Hmm. That was a pretty good hug the First Lady–sorry, Hillary –gave to Roberto Ramirez, the Assembly member who doubles as the Democratic Party’s Bronx County chairman. Might that be because he had just helped to iron out the last, worst wrinkle left in the F.A.L.N. flap? In any event, Representative Jose Serrano of the Bronx, the senior Puerto Rican member of Congress, had dramatically withdrawn his support from the presumptive Democratic nominee, in anger that she had ultimately disavowed a clemency for which he had personally fought. But now he was slated to endorse her, in the Bronx and in her presence, perhaps as early as Saturday, Feb. 12.

Her speech had one good line of humorous self-deprecation. (“I’m a little older now,” she said, referring to her bespectacled, judgmental 1969 Wellesley commencement-speaker self. “A little blonder. A lot humbler.”) But its one real note of irony was seen, not heard. The President was sitting there, silent as the grave, but behind the scenes, he was saying plenty, and had been for a very long time. For a group that widely derided Hillary’s Choice , Gail Sheehy’s recent weigh-in on Why She Stays With Bill, as a shameless work of psychobabble, enduring Clintonians are surprisingly quick to observe that it is at least in part a husband’s desire to make it up to his wife–need we go into what “it” is?–that fuels his willingness to do everything possible to help her now. Indeed, the President’s involvement sometimes carries the definite scent of chivalry.

Some months ago, for instance, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee sent out a fund-raising letter over the First Lady’s signature that the President viewed as ill timed, in that it coincided with a mailing of Mrs. Clinton’s own. It was a minor slip-up that led to a major blow-up: According to several sources speaking from several vantage points, Mr. Clinton took such issue with Senate minority leader–and, um, impeachment-era ally–Tom Daschle that relations between the two men became materially strained, and Senator Robert Torricelli, head of the campaign committee, had to broker something of a rapprochement.

Her speech acknowledged only the four New York politicians who had spoken before her: Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Chuck Schumer; Representatives Charles Rangel and Nita Lowey, to whom it fell to acknowledge the laundry list of dignitaries who were there. That led to ruminations upon who was in attendance, especially as juxtaposed with who was not. Rodney Slater, the Secretary of Transportation, who hails from Arkansas, was there; Andrew Cuomo, the pre-eminently New Yawk Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was not. Notwithstanding the presence of his wife, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, with a young daughter on her hip, Mr. Cuomo’s absence brought one to an enticing fork in the road of speculation: Did it have to do with the fact that, contrary to public perception–and, if you think about it, to common sense as to what helps or harms her politically–Mrs. Clinton was none too pleased about his announcement of the withholding of $60 million in homelessness funding from New York City? Or was it more to do with the fact, remarked with some frequency in the gray-ticket politico section, that high-ranking members of the Gore campaign in New York, which Mr. Cuomo heads up, seemed remarkably thin on the ground, if not absent altogether?

Close Hillary hand Harold Ickes was nowhere to be seen, and media adviser Mandy Grunwald was backstage, with the techies, watching the proceedings on television. But White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, who is perhaps best known for his Monica Lewinsky-related grand jury activities–and who, according to the eager, frequently unprompted insistence of many on Team Hillary, carries no weight at all in her campaign–was in plain sight, just over the velvet rope from the press corps. Like all lightning rods on their very best behavior, Mr. Blumenthal was declaring himself off the record and proceeding to say nothing, but Neel Lattimore, a former press secretary to the First Lady, still seemed to view him as damage in need of controlling. Mr. Lattimore, who had spent the previous night stenciling the “Hillarys” and fretting over the banner, did not, as the nonpresent Internet scribe Matt Drudge later reported, take to the microphone and order that the barely noticed playing of Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack” be cut off at once. But he did pretty much take Mr. Blumenthal by the elbow and lead him away from the “scorp” section.

Her speech thanked the 600 supporters simultaneously hosting Hillary house parties across the state, whom she would soon conference-call. It did not mention the other, more personal telephone calls that her finance staff was going to force her to make to big-dollar donors, but having just been beaten, albeit not all that soundly, by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the first lap of fund raising, they were determined to make her make them. This might shock those who assume that, after all these years the Clintons’ hesitation to ask money of a donor must be equal to that of a grizzly’s hesitation to wrest meat from a terrified camper. But Mrs. Clinton is said to dread the task of dialing for dollars–so much so that some frustrated associates claim that the sum total of hours she has spent, from the beginning, on one-on-one telephone solicitation is in the single digits. Others depict that as a serious exaggeration, but the gist is not in dispute: She needed a kick in the pantsuit to step up her money-tree shaking, and it is hoped that Mr. Giuliani gave it to her.

Her speech reportedly had one main seamstress (Lissa Muscatine, her White House press secretary, who sewed the themes together–at home, on her own time, Team Hillary hastens to add for the benefit of Team Giuliani), many designers (Ms. Grunwald, pollster Mark Penn, chief of staff Melanne Verveer, and, of course, what’s-his-name–the husband). For all this, it had one new standard-issue, cliché refrain (“I’ll be on your side!”) to preface many not-new, standard-issue Democratic proposals (after-school programs, breast cancer research, increase in the minimum wage, expansion in the earned income tax credit …) Mrs. Clinton’s supporters lavished praise upon it, and those of Mr. Giuliani heaped scorn. But it was, in truth, no better or worse than any other announcement speech that one is likely to hear.

Her speech, though, was beside the point. As ever, she is the point. She is here, and she is Hillary. Just look at the logo.

– Tish Durkin

Al Gore Dispatches Whouley, a Boston Hit Man, to End Dollar Bill’s Run

As the Presidential sideshow prepares for its Broadway debut, a wiry, manic political operative with a New England accent will arrive at Vice President Al Gore’s campaign offices on Seventh Avenue, just north of Penn Station. The politico, Michael Whouley, is not well known in New York and tends to describe himself simply as an “or-gan-i-zah.” But Mr. Whouley, one of Mr. Gore’s top aides, happens to be the guy who engineered the Vice President’s come-from-behind victory over former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey in the New Hampshire Presidential primary on Feb. 1.

Now Mr. Whouley is being dispatched to New York with a new mission: to help bury Mr. Bradley once and for all.

With the New York primary looming on March 7, the Gore campaign is sending in political operators like Mr. Whouley with the intention of wrapping up the nomination. Mr. Bradley has conceded that he has to win several primaries on March 7, when 13 states hold primaries. Certainly, New York must count as a “must-win,” because it is Mr. Bradley’s virtual home state, the place he gained fame as a New York Knick. (His real home state, New Jersey, was clever enough to schedule its primary in June, rendering it meaningless in this front-loaded primary campaign.)

Only six months ago, polls showed Mr. Bradley trouncing Mr. Gore in New York. In the months since, however, the Gore campaign has quietly built an operation in New York that even Mr. Bradley’s supporters concede will be tough to overcome. And perhaps tougher than they think. A poll released on Feb. 8 by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion showed the Vice President leading Mr. Bradley by 15 points among registered New York Democrats.

What’s more, Senator Charles Schumer, among the last prominent New York Democrats who has yet to choose sides, is expected to endorse Mr. Gore within days, and Hillary Rodham Clinton is set to begin stumping alongside the Vice President soon after, several Democratic sources told The Observer .

“The Gore campaign has finally come to New York,” said City Council member Ken Fisher of Brooklyn, a prominent Gore supporter. “There will be wall-to-wall Clintons, Gores, Kennedys, Cuomos and Baldwins as far as the eye can see from now until March 7.”

Mr. Gore’s sudden surge in New York is due in part to the national bounce the Vice President has enjoyed in recent weeks. But it also reflects the Gore camp’s painstaking efforts to build a statewide organization designed to stop Mr. Bradley’s momentum in New York.

Driven by the panic that gripped his campaign early on, Mr. Gore adopted a deliberate strategy of lavishing personal attention on scores of lowly clubhouse pols, sometimes dazzling star-struck hacks with calls direct from his Air Force Two. Not long ago, when Representative Jerrold Nadler of the West Side of Manhattan publicly proclaimed his support for Mr. Bradley, Mr. Gore swiftly rounded up dozens of West Side activists from Mr. Nadler’s district for a private meeting in a New York hotel. He personally persuaded them to part ways with their local Congressman.

Mr. Bradley’s aides hope to prevail over Mr. Gore’s institutional support in New York by appealing directly to voters with large themes on issues such as race relations and health care. “This is an insurgent campaign against the Vice President of the United States of America,” said Julia Rothwax, Mr. Bradley’s spokesman. “They have the Democratic organization, they have union support. But the Bradley message is going to be very appealing to New Yorkers. It’s a message of health care for all Americans, it’s a message of gun control, it’s a message of educational reform. This is what Bill has been talking about for eight months in New York.”

Ms. Rothwax also maintained that Mr. Bradley enjoys his own organizational heft. “We have coordinated 9,000 volunteers off the Internet and collected 70,000 signatures [to get on the ballot]. That doesn’t just happen.”

A Ground War

Indeed, whatever the inspirational power of Mr. Bradley’s lofty messages, primaries are won and lost on the ground. Thus the Gore camp has enlisted Mr. Whouley, who learned politics in the wards of Boston and whose main talent lies in so-called “field operations.” Mr. Gore’s New York effort has also been joined by John Wellspeak, a veteran of field operations in statewide campaigns who is close to State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Mr. Whouley and Mr. Wellspeak will be lending part-time help to the head of Mr. Gore’s New York operation, Eric Eve, the son of a flamboyant upstate Assembly member named Arthur Eve.

By most accounts, Mr. Gore’s wake-up call in New York came in August, even before Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s endorsement of Mr. Bradley. At the time, panicky Democrats across the state were leaking a flood of negative stories about Mr. Eve. He and two other top Gore aides, campaign manager Donna Brazile and campaign chairman Tony Coelho, journeyed to the Brooklyn Marriott for a private meeting with 13 top county chairmen. The Gore staff was startled to find itself barraged by complaints from local pols who felt shut out of Mr. Gore’s New York effort.

“We were really worried that we weren’t even going to know when the Vice President would be coming into our counties, and that we had no way of getting in contact with the people running the campaign,” Paul Adler, the Democratic Party’s Rockland County chairman, told The Observer . “Tony Coelho stood up and gave us his word that things would be different, and that we would be much more involved in the campaign. So we walked out that day as qualified believers.”

Within two weeks, Mr. Adler recalled, each chairman had received a call from Mr. Gore himself. “All of a sudden I got a call from Air Force Two: ‘Thank you for meeting with Coelho. You’re right, we should have reached out earlier–and give my regards to Mary [Adler, the chairman's wife].'” Shortly thereafter, Mr. Gore arranged a conference call with all 62 county chairs of the Democratic Party.

Since then, the Vice President has gone out of his way to shower personal attention upon the party leaders, writing messages at their behest to be read at local political events. One local chairman was thrilled to be able to stand up before a Rockland County dinner and read a letter from Mr. Gore congratulating a retiring firefighter.

Democratic allies of Mr. Gore insist that there is no similar effort by the Bradley campaign. “When Bradley was generating some buzz up here, and local officials were interested in supporting him, they got nothing in response,” said Ryan Karben, a legislator of Rockland County. “I think he just disdains local politics and disdains the machinery that wins local elections.”

Gore operatives have jumped at every opportunity to demonstrate his support among elected officials. On Feb. 6, Mr. Bradley staged a press conference in a Queens church with the Revs. Floyd Flake and Al Sharpton to denounce Mr. Gore for not speaking to the concerns of African-Americans, a key Bradley constituency. Minutes later, a nervous young Gore operative circulated through the crowded room, passing out an open letter assailing Mr. Bradley for going negative. The missive was signed by 148 Democratic officials, including State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and two top African-American members of the House. The letter had been sent to the officials two days earlier by the Gore camp on a hunch that Mr. Bradley would go on the attack that day.

War in the Suburbs

Meanwhile, the Gore campaign also has been working furiously to sabotage Mr. Bradley among another of his key constituencies: suburban voters. Mr. Bradley has long been popular among middle- and upper-class Democratic voters from Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties. But for months, the Gore campaign has tried to loosen Mr. Bradley’s grip on these voters, sending the Vice President to Westchester in late October to raise money for three Democratic legislators. Mr. Gore also plans to visit Rockland just before the primary.

“Gore is getting better in the trenches,” said the Democratic Party’s Nassau County chairman, Thomas DiNapoli. “Bradley is well respected out here, but he is doing well as a philosopher, not as someone the people would rally around.” Polls and endorsements aside, Mr. Gore is doing his best to play the role of relaxed and confident front-runner. On Feb. 7, Mr. Gore campaigned at the downtown Manhattan headquarters of District Council 37, New York City’s largest municipal union. The Vice President didn’t bother to mention his opponent’s name until well into his speech, preferring instead to wander into the crowd and spin homey tales about being a “rookie” grandfather.

Members of the audience were charmed. But they didn’t need to be won over. Mr. Gore had locked up the endorsement of D.C. 37 last April.

– Greg Sargent and Josh Benson