Hillary’s Handmaiden: When Hype Dies Down, Nita Lowey Is There

It was a brief encounter, but for Representative Nita Lowey of Westchester County, it must have been a very bright one.

“I hope you run!” Lynnette Velasco, a Queens-based children’s book author, gushed to the compact, brunette Representative, who was standing in a drafty elevator bank in the bowels of the Empire State Plaza in Albany and, of course, in the glittering shadow of Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I love Hillary, but you’ve paid your dues in the state.”

No kidding. Ms. Lowey, who was standing in the elevator bank because her driver had misplaced the car and the parking garage was too cold a place to wait for him to find it, had just spent Valentine’s night working the Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators’ dinner in Albany. The following day, it was off to Miami for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention, then to Los Angeles to schmooze with prospective fund-raisers, then back east to Buffalo to move among more Democrats.

“It’s been a very hectic week, but very positive,” Ms. Lowey told The Observer several days later, calling from a pay phone on Park Avenue in the East 60’s, and she did sound positively peachy. And why not? It was the week that Ms. Lowey, 5 feet 5 inches tall, a six-term Representative whose strangely contorted district stretches from Archie Bunkerite Queens through the Bronx to Scarsdale and beyond, became the de facto Democratic front-runner in what many feel is the likely circumstance that- Time , Newsweek and Representative Bob Torricelli of New Jersey notwithstanding-Mrs. Clinton chooses not to run for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat. In that case, New York politics being a machine that can flip very quickly, Ms. Lowey should get ready to be spit out as the nominee.

Indeed-to hear Representative Lowey tell it-it is nothing but peachy to become, as she has of late, a walking synonym for all things secondary. While the First Lady emits that strange, serene glow from the covers of Time and Newsweek , Ms. Lowey gets to grin and be grateful for distant second billing as the plain Jane of New York politics; the understudy, the first-runner-up should the carpetbagger queen decline the crown of candidacy.

And besides, Ms. Lowey may lack that unique Rodham Clinton blend of feminist flair and marital martyrdom, but she is not without her selling points. “Nita Lowey is a champion of choice,” Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, told The Observer . “She led the fight for contraceptive coverage for Federal employees.”

A 61-year-old suburbanite-a “soccer grandmom,” if you will-she carries a New Democrat bouquet complete with votes for welfare reform, breast cancer research, school construction and Nafta.

As of Feb. 16, Ms. Lowey had $842,645 in her coffers, which places her 18th in the House in terms of cash on hand, and second in the New York delegation (albeit second to Representative Rick Lazio, a Republican of Suffolk County, who has $1,853,834 as he contemplates a primary against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani). “She’s not Chuck Schumer, but she’s right below him,” said a Washington-based Democratic fund-raiser of Ms. Lowey’s money machinations. “You should see her operate. Every donor in New York loves Nita Lowey, because she’s one of them.”

Though it is hard to imagine that Mrs. Clinton’s now-infamous assertion in favor of a Palestinian state was, as Mr. Giuliani would have it, “a very big mistake” with many voters beyond the conservative Jewish bloc bound to go Republican, anyway, it is an assertion that Ms. Lowey has never made. (“U.S. foreign policy should focus on a strong Israel in the context of a peaceful Middle East,” said Ms. Lowey, diplomatically declining to characterize the First Lady’s remark.) And, as one might surmise from the fact that she opposed the 1994 Clinton health care plan in part because of its potentially damaging effect on New York hospitals, she lives here.

“Nita has been underestimated her whole life,” said longtime Democratic activist Ken Sunshine. “She may be the ideal candidate, ironically better than the front-runner. No baggage, and it may be far more difficult for her to be used as the [Republicans’] foil.”

None of which is to say that Ms. Lowey, no matter how much camera time the current fracas may give her, will ever approach the First Lady’s ability to raise Democratic money, spirits or turnout. But, given the fact that she could still end up as the Democratic nominee, might this bridesmaid routine be a little, well, insulting?

Goodness, no!

“I respect the First Lady’s decision-making process,” the deferential Ms. Lowey told The Observer , as she has undoubtedly had the delight of telling every other journalism outfit in America. “I’ve made it very clear that I would support her enthusiastically.”

Despite an explicit report in the press that Mrs. Clinton had traded support licks with Ms. Lowey, it is not entirely clear that the First Lady promised her endorsement should she decide not to run. “I feel very confident that the Administration would be 100 percent behind me,” Ms. Lowey told The Observer , but Mrs. Clinton’s press office did not return calls on the question.

Even so, there is a method to this magnanimity. Think about it: Whether by choice or chance, Ms. Lowey finds herself in a rather good spot, possibly inevitable, on the chessboard. To begin with, in the inconceivable event that Ms. Lowey were to primary Mrs. Clinton, she wouldn’t just be creamed; she’d be stoned. In the bizarrely conceivable event that Mrs. Clinton runs, Ms. Lowey will continue to occupy a safe and increasingly senior seat in what is within six victories of becoming a Democratic House, she will also occupy a place, if not in Mrs. Clinton’s heart, then at least on her radar screen.

And in the event that Mrs. Clinton does not run, Ms. Lowey would have set herself as New York’s No. 1 good sport with all her Democratic ducks lined up in a row. Who would deny her then?

Actually, she might want to deny herself. “I don’t think that she’s made the decision to run, even if Hillary doesn’t,” said a Congressional staff member in the New York delegation. “What this does is, it puts her in the situation that if Hillary doesn’t run, she almost has to.” And so she keeps moving toward Democratic near-inevitability in very much the methodical manner of another flash-free downstater.

Ms. Lowey’s opponent in her first House race derided her as “Bella Abzug without a hat,” but Representative Lowey is lately sounding more like Chuck Schumer in a skirt.

“I feel very confident about my legislative record,” said Ms. Lowey, literally echoing the sentiment Mr. Schumer expressed from the days when everyone was waiting for him to leave an unwinnable primary to the day he dethroned Senator D’Amato. “My record or accomplishment is very strong.”

But that won’t be enough, if her support system turns out to be weak.

“The story is, why isn’t the Democratic Party getting its act together?” said Bill Lynch, who was a deputy mayor under David Dinkins. “I’m in favor of Hillary, but I’m worried that we’ve set this high expectation for her to let us down.”

At which point Ms. Lowey may put her cards face up. But not yet.

“I don’t say ‘waiting in the wings’ or things like that,” said Ms. Lowey. “Others say that.”

Last November, in an effort to ease the uphill struggle of his aspiring successors, Mr. Moynihan had the grace and the sense to say No. If she is to retain her status as any kind of Democratic savior, Mrs. Clinton can take her time if and only if she plans to say Yes. Otherwise, she’s leaving Nita Lowey up the Hudson without a paddle.

Hillary’s Handmaiden: When Hype Dies Down, Nita Lowey Is There