When It’s Nice Not to Be a Kennedy

Much as been made of the advantages that go along with being Caroline Kennedy: name recognition, establishment backing, unparalleled access to donors and, as the Times wrote yesterday, a virtual monopoly on the attentions of the political press.

But, for her prospective competitors, there is also at least one major advantage to not being her in the race to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate: cover.

Take Representative Carolyn Maloney, who, during a Kennedy-esque swing through upstate New York, botched a number of comments about some issues that are, at least up there, fairly basic.

By contrast with the Times-News-Post-Drudge treatment of Kennedy’s impressive “you know” habit, Ms. Maloney’s stumbles were played as an afterthought in the (amusing) Buffalo News write-up.

In the last several weeks, the public and, more importantly, Governor David Paterson, who alone will choose Clinton’s successor, have learned all about Kennedy’s liabilities and weaknesses. There’s her parchment thin public record, her surprising ineloquence, her reluctance to disclose personal financial statements and the general resentment she has engendered by being a political novice whose most obvious qualification for the Senate is her surname.

In that same time period, the members of congress and other New York politicians hoping to win Paterson’s nod have received treatment more appropriate for amusing diversions than serious candidates.

As a result, they have so far dodged the sort of public scrutiny a potential senator would usually be subjected to. (When the New York Post reported that Paterson had asked the dozen or so candidates for Clinton’s seat to complete a 28-page questionnaire requesting medical information, credit history, debts and ties to troubled financial institutions, the headline on the story was “Paterson Gets Personal in Vetting Caroline.”)

And to the extent that the non-Kennedy candidates have had to answer questions, they have been about…what it is like running against Caroline Kennedy.

“Look, she’s Caroline Kennedy,” Representative Steve Israel told the Times after lunching with the mayor of Utica and meeting with other officials during his own campaign sweep upstate. “And it doesn’t bother me, dissuade me or affect me in the least.”

But it’s more than just a question of not being truly tested as a campaigner, and having more latitude for what the media might otherwise consider “gaffes.” There are also elementary issues of substantive vetting for any prospective statewide candidate which, with Kennedy front and center all the time, the press simply hasn’t gotten around yet to asking the lesser-known, more locally focused candidates.

To cite a small but instructive example, Maloney and Israel have both staked out positions on issues of importance to rural upstate voters that are, from the perspective of getting elected statewide, the wrong ones. In 1999, Maloney opposed a Dairy Compact that was considered critical to New York milk farmers. The proposed expansion of the compact would have likely increased the profits of upstate dairy farmers. Senators Chuck Schumer and Pat Moynihan both supported the measure. Many downstate politicians, however, expressed opposition to the increasing of milk prices out of concern for their lower income constituents.

”I am all for helping small farmers in our state, but this appears to be just helping big producers,” Maloney said at the time.

The bill never made it to the floor. New York, ultimately, was kept out of the compact.

And during the debate over the Farm Bill last year, both Israel and Maloney joined several other downstate members of congress in supported a measure that would have shifted funding towards conservation and specialty crops. The language of the amendment, a measure intended to “work better for small farmers at lower cost, reallocate funding to nutrition, conservation, specialty crops and healthy foods, rural development, and programs that benefit socially disadvantaged farmers,” seemed to make it a no-brainer for liberal politicians, but upstate Democrats opposed the changes because they feared they would have jeopardized the final passage of the Farm Bill. The amendments were ultimately defeated. Both Israel and Maloney voted for the Farm Bill.

In a statement to the Observer on Jan. 6, Maloney said, “On the farm bill amendment and the Dairy Compact, I took positions that I believe are in the best interests of New York’s small farmers and consumers. I look forward to continuing to work in Washington on behalf of these two vital constituencies.”

When It’s Nice Not to Be a Kennedy