Currying Kerry

In a Fifth Avenue living room one recent evening, Richard Holbrooke was introduced to a crowd of New York Democrats as “the next Secretary of State.”

Why not? Mr. Holbrooke, a former United Nations Ambassador who was Bill Clinton’s envoy to the Balkans, certainly is working for it. Many hours before his evening on Fifth Avenue, Mr. Holbrooke had started his day in Detroit, campaigning for Senator John Kerry. In the afternoon, he debated a Bush aide in Washington, D.C. He then finished his day-long marathon with two fund-raisers, including the one on Fifth Avenue.

Ever the diplomat, Mr. Holbrooke knew better than to react to the effusive introduction. But he surely is one of several New Yorkers with their eyes on cabinet positions in a prospective Kerry administration. The shrewdest among them know that their campaign-within-a-campaign must be played with equal parts ambition and tact. The rules of the game, said one prominent Democratic activist, are these:

“You raise money, you surrogate-speak, you raise money, you do policy briefings, you go on TV to defend your candidate, and you raise money,” the activist said. “Overt campaigning is sudden death.”

Many of these New Yorkers-most of them are men-still feel the sting of vanished appointments to a Gore administration. But now they are revved up again, as Mr. Kerry mounts a strong challenge to incumbent President George W. Bush. Quietly, they are positioning themselves for ambassadorships, commission seats and key roles in a hoped-for Kerry cabinet. Their campaign, well underway in many East Side parlors, is roiling a tiny world in which everyone wants to be the next Robert Rubin, Mr. Clinton’s Treasury Secretary.

In addition to Mr. Holbrooke, several other New Yorkers are thought to be so close to cabinet posts that they might be tempted to browse through residential listings in Georgetown, just in case Mr. Kerry unseats Mr. Bush. Mr. Holbrooke, of course, takes the mentions for Foggy Bottom. Investment bankers Roger Altman and Steven Rattner are thought to be competing for the top economic posts. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer could take John Ashcroft’s job. New School President Bob Kerrey must be in line for something important.

“People dream about going to Washington,” said Scott Stringer, a West Side State Assemblyman who was the first New York office-holder to endorse Mr. Kerry. “If Kerry were to become President, there is a whole host of people in New York who will probably be under consideration for some huge positions in this country.”

These aren’t patronage jobs: Skill is a must. But skill alone won’t do it. Loyalty counts, and Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Altman, the chairman of the investment and merchant banking firm Evercore, were advising Mr. Kerry back when he was trailing in the polls. Money counts, too. While those two have pledged to raise $50,000 each for Mr. Kerry’s New York mega-fund-raiser on April 14, according to a list of hosts obtained by The Observer , others in the world of finance will raise even more. Mr. Rattner is a co-chair of Mr. Kerry’s overall New York effort, one of a half-dozen people expected to raise millions for the Senator’s campaign. Mr. Rattner’s wife, Maureen White, is the finance chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Rattner, a former New York Times reporter and now the managing principal of the Quadrangle Group, was considered a likely Treasury Secretary under Mr. Gore. Now “he wants it so bad that when he has his alphabet cereal in the morning, the letters spell out ‘Treasury Secretary,’” said one elected official. Mr. Rattner did not return telephone calls from the Observer, but a person close to him said, “Steve is happy and productive atQuadrangle and has no plans to do anything else.”

It’s in Mr. Rattner’s and Mr. Altman’s field, finance, that the competition for high-ranking posts is clearest and stiffest. That’s partly because the field of Democrats is so small, said another major Kerry supporter and longtime Democratic policy hand, investment banker Orin Kramer.

Mr. Kramer recalled a conversation he had with Mr. Altman in 1976, when Mr. Altman, then in his early 30′s, was managing the transition for President-elect Jimmy Carter’s Treasury Department.

“I remember Roger remarking to me at the time that when a Republican is elected President, there are a large number of theoretical possibilities for Treasury Secretary, whereas when a Democrat is elected President, there are relatively few,” he said. “That was true 30 years ago, and it’s true today.”

Mr. Altman convened an informal group of Kerry advisers early in the campaign. Now he’s a frequent mention for the post of Treasury Secretary.

“Roger Altman is clearly equipped to be Secretary of the Treasury, because he should have been it last time,” said Richard Kahan, a former chairman of the Battery Park City Authority.

Mr. Altman was in line before, as a deputy treasury secretary under Mr. Clinton. But he was forced out in 1994 in a forgotten mini-scandal amid the Whitewater investigation. An appointment to a job requiring Senate confirmation could re-open that issue, and another Kerry supporter said that might make him more likely to be named director of the National Economic Council, a job which doesn’t require confirmation.

And hovering above any rivalry between Mr. Altman and Mr. Rattner is the model for a New York ascent to Washington: Robert Rubin. “A lot of people would like to be the next Bob Rubin,” said one New Yorker who served with Mr. Rubin in Washington.

Mr. Rubin, the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, made all the right moves in the run-up to the 1992 election. Already involved in New York’s civic life, Mr. Rubin played a central role in the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York and served as a policy adviser to Mr. Clinton, while giving nearly $50,000 in soft money to the Democratic National Committee. As Treasury Secretary, he was a key global economic player during the dizzying prosperity of the mid- and late 1990′s. He returned to a post at Citigroup with a reputation as America’s preeminent financier.

Democrats are nearly unanimous in dreaming of Mr. Rubin’s return to Washington. They float his name as a replacement for Federal Reserve Bank chairman Alan Greenspan.

“If we get him back, he could save this country,” said John Catsimatidis, a Democrat who owns the Gristede’s and Red Apple supermarket chains.

If Mr. Rubin can’t save the country, perhaps someone else will step up. Several other names from finance and business appear as co-chairs of the New York finance operation, and would likely be tapped for sub-cabinet positions or plum ambassadorships. The financiers include Mr. Kramer, UBS Warburg’s Blair Effron and Hassan Nemazee, an investment banker and native of Iran who heads Mr. Kerry’s New York effort. Mr. Nemazee has apparently kept his taste for the game, despite seeing his nomination as ambassador to Argentina scuttled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1999 amid allegations of sharp dealing.

Businessmen in the first rank of Mr. Kerry’s supporters include co-chairs Robert Zimmerman, a Long Island– based public-relations man, and venture capitalist Alan Patricof. The New York campaign chairman is Dennis Mehiel, who recently sold the Sweetheart Cup Company and is essentially working full-time for Mr. Kerry.

“My focus is on the three million jobs we have lost to Republican policies,” Mr. Mehiel said. “After that, we can worry about jobs for New York Democrats.”

Mr. Mehiel may not be thinking along those lines, but that hasn’t stopped the quiet, eager speculation among Mr. Kerry’s supporters. With Mr. Holbrooke, Mr. Rattner and Mr. Altman well established, several other well-known local names are emerging as potential players in the Kerry campaign.

First among them is Mark Green, the former Public Advocate, who was an early supporter and has been an adviser to the Senator’s campaign. Both he and his brother Stephen have pledged to raise $100,000 for the April 14 event, and when Mr. Kerry’s brother recently visited New York, it was Mr. Green who shuttled him from synagogue to synagogue.

Other early, vigorous supporters who could be in line for prominent appointments include Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney and Representative Gregory Meeks of Queens, who campaigned for Mr. Kerry in his family’s native South Carolina and across the country during primary season. Prominent Kerry supporters also mention the former State Comptroller, H. Carl McCall, as a likely Kerry appointee.

Spitzer’s Future

Mr. Spitzer, however, drew particular attention when Mr. Kerry came under attack from President Bush’s campaign for his ties to “special interests.” The State Attorney General, who has made a national name for himself as a crusader against Wall Street cronyism, quickly flew to New Mexico for a well-timed endorsement.

“I could see Eliot Spitzer being Attorney General,” said Mr. Meeks, the Queens Congressman. Another Democrat noted that if Mr. Spitzer were summoned to Washington, it would help clear up some potential problems for Democrats in 2006. Mr. Spitzer has set his sights on running for Governor that year, but lately U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, another Democrat, has been rumored to be eyeing a move to Albany. The potential for a brutal primary would vanish if Mr. Spitzer went to Washington. “Schumer would push hard for him,” the Democrat said.

Others willing to speculate publicly reached a bit further afield. Contacted on April Fool’s Day, Representative Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn floated Mr. Meeks’ name for Secretary of Agriculture. His qualifications? “He eats vegetables,” Mr. Weiner said.

Mr. Meeks demurred.

“It would just be great for New York-and my Congressional district in particular-if I could pick up the telephone and talk to the President of the United States about our needs,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking to get out of it.”

But for officials without the comfort of a safe Congressional seat, sub-cabinet positions might be attractive. Mr. Green has been mentioned for a range of appointments, from the Federal Election Commission on up. Mr. McCall and Ms. Fields, who can’t run for re-election as Manhattan borough president next year because of term limits, could be candidates for any number of jobs.

But before they pack their bags, they might want to take some words of caution from two elder statesmen. Henry Stern, the longtime Parks Commissioner and onetime City Council member, recalled the story of Elliott Bell, once the state’s top economic official under Governor Thomas Dewey. In 1948, Bell decided that he would accept the post of Treasury Secretary once his boss dispensed with the unelectable incumbent, Harry Truman. And Bell wasn’t the only New Yorker making plans. “People had literally made deposits on houses,” said historian Richard Norton Smith. But then an amazing thing happened: Dewey didn’t beat Truman.

And, as Mr. Altman learned once, getting to Washington is just the beginning. Just ask Bernard Nussbaum, Mr. Clinton’s White House counsel, who was also forced out during the Whitewater investigation.

“Going to Washington is a great adventure, but one has to have four essential assets: You should be personally honest, you should have a thick skin, because you’re going to be criticized, and you should be economically independent,” Mr. Nussbaum said. “Most of all, what you need is a home to come home to-and there’s no better home to come home to than New York.”