Kennedys to Bloomberg: Quiet, Please!

Some members of the Kennedy family are worried that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s advocacy for Caroline Kennedy is boxing in the governor and damaging her chances of replacing Hillary Clinton in the Senate, according to one family member.

“We love the kind words the mayor has said about her but this is Governor Paterson’s decision, and we were concerned that the mayor’s vocal support would crowd the governor and damage the effort,” said one member of the Kennedy family, speaking on background.

It hasn’t always been clear that the mayor’s camp sees it that way.

On Dec. 30, the New York Post reported that Kevin Sheekey, Mr. Bloomberg’s senior political aide and one of Ms. Kennedy’s most enthusiastic boosters, would stop campaigning on her behalf. He had been reined in.

Only he hadn’t. On Dec. 31, Mr. Sheekey came back with a doozy, telling the Daily News, “The idea that we would pass up appointing someone to the Senate who is both a friend and a critical supporter of Barack Obama is political malpractice.”

He also said, “New York needs someone who supported the New President,” and, “We desperately need that here in New York and I think we need Caroline.” 

It has been enough to lead more than a few elected officials, political consultants and operatives to conclude that Ms. Kennedy’s potential appointment is very much about the mayor, too-an opportunity not only to fill a void left by Mrs. Clinton with an ally, but to assert political dominance over Mr. Paterson and his frequent rival, the powerful assembly speaker Sheldon Silver.

“This is a power vacuum, which, as we know, nature abhors, and I think Bloomberg has decided to step into it in a big way,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Mr. Baker said the mayor and his allies had so enthusiastically backed Ms. Kennedy, who has worked for several years under Mr. Bloomberg as a fund-raiser in the Department of Education, because “it shows that he has the ability to effectively bring about the appointment of a senator. Paterson has not made up his mind yet, which at this point kind of borders on indecision, and I think that one of Bloomberg’s strengths is decisiveness; sometimes it’s impulsiveness. And of course what it does for him is it makes him the kingmaker. It would be a U.S. senator who is personally indebted to him.”

There is something to this. Mrs. Clinton will soon be an ex-New Yorker. Chuck Schumer, reveling in the glory of his second consecutive triumphant cycle as chief campaigner for the Senate Democrats, will increasingly see his best political and public-relations opportunities in Washington, and will be loathe to appear overly involved in messy local politics. Mr. Paterson is besieged by a daunting state budget and a chaotic Legislature. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, if he doesn’t get the Senate seat, will still be boxed in as attorney general. And Sheldon Silver, the powerful speaker of the Assembly, who has reveled in defeating some of the mayor’s highest-profile initiatives-and who suggested on the radio last month that Ms. Kennedy’s “first obligation might be to the mayor of the City of New York, rather than to the governor who would be appointing her”-will be forced to live up to a subsequent pledge to support Ms. Kennedy if she ends up being the appointee.

There are some obvious practical implications here. Just as the lack of a strong, consensus-champion Democrat to stand up to Mr. Bloomberg, an independent, allowed the mayor to win on term-limit extensions, the same thing may allow him to have had an outsize say in the selection of Mrs. Clinton’s replacement.

“The mayor personally decided to extend term limits; that was one kind of power grab and this is another,” said one New York Democratic elected official. “The Bloomberg folks saw this as an opportunity to force his hand on the U.S. Senate seat. Politics is usually the other way. The governor is supposed to be the powerful one and the mayor is supposed to be the supplicant.”

“Bloomberg is attempting to make a power statement here that he runs the show,” said another New York elected Democrat. “The governor’s office has always been and will always be much more powerful than the mayor’s, but because Paterson is finding his legs in the office, he has only been there a year, he is not as well known, he’s up for a tough reelection-all these things have created a dynamic in which someone who is more settled in their position, like Bloomberg, is trying to run the table. Historically, a governor who wants to assert himself would never let that happen. It remains to be seen how the governor is going to handle it.”

And this is to say nothing of the small matter of next year’s mayor’s race. Try finding anyone who believes that if Chuck Schumer and Caroline Kennedy are New York’s senators, either of them will do anything more than token campaign activity on behalf of whichever badly underfunded Democrat emerges to challenge the Bloomberg juggernaut in 2009.

Think of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s half-hearted endorsement of Freddy Ferrer in 2006.

“If Caroline Kennedy were to become the senator, it gives the Bloomberg administration a direct line into the White House, it reduces the possibility that Barack Obama will become involved in a New York mayoral race, which is not insignificant,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant who may end up working for one of the leading prospective Democratic candidates, New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson. “The third thing it does is it proves that Bloomberg has got the juice to get something done when the others have been incapable or in stasis.” 

The mayor is officially neutral on the question of who should succeed Mrs. Clinton, but Mr. Bloomberg’s supporters acknowledge that the mayor is supportive of Ms. Kennedy, whose public biography is rooted in her $1-a-year job raising money for the city’s public schools. But some adamantly argue against the idea that the mayor is using Ms. Kennedy’s potential appointment as a power play in state politics.

“A power play could mean where you are trying to gain an edge at the expense of all the other politicians; or is it smart politics to have a prominent Democratic name that you have been supportive of in a political year in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic,” said Bill Cunningham, a former communications director for Mr. Bloomberg. “That’s politics, not necessarily a power play.” 

“Every time he has been asked about her candidacy, the mayor has been careful to point out that it’s the governor’s choice, and he has a number of great candidates to choose among,” said Stu Loeser, a spokesman for the mayor.  “While the mayor feels that Ms. Kennedy is phenomenally competent, he has taken care to point out that he feels the same way about other potential candidates as well.”

Still, the Kennedy camp seems well aware of the dangers of even the perception that the mayor is, in effect, preparing to roll the governor.

“She knows who makes the pick and she is going to be close and loyal to Paterson,” a source close to Ms. Kennedy said.

Kennedys to Bloomberg: Quiet, Please!