Published December 20, 2008
The start of Caroline Kennedy's "listening tour" was awfully hard to hear.
So far, her first foray into politics has been one of private meetings, brief appearances, and unanswered questions about what she would do, say and think if chosen as New York's next senator.
It's a similar strategy to the one Hillary Rodham Clinton employed successfully in 1999 to meet and listen to residents and politicians, but with a big difference: Kennedy's really campaigning for only one voter -- Democratic Gov. David Paterson. He has the sole responsibility for naming a successor if Clinton is confirmed as President-elect Barack Obama's secretary of state.
"It is not a campaign," Kennedy said after a private meeting with Democratic officials in Rochester.
Yet there is an intense lobbying effort under way to persuade the people who can persuade the governor to make her a senator.
In that, the 51-year-old daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy is no different than the dozen or so other Senate hopefuls -- but her effort has been far more closely scrutinized because she has never run for office and little is known about her politics, personality or priorities.
A big part of Kennedy's effort is trying to convince upstate political bosses that she sees beyond the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
Upstate New Yorkers feel chronically ignored by New York's political leadership, especially now that the governor and both senators live in or near New York City.
The region that sprawls from New York City's suburbs to the Canadian border and west to Lake Erie has been in the economic doldrums for years, long before the financial meltdown.
Should Clinton win confirmation early next year, Paterson will appoint someone to the seat for two years.
Kennedy stumbled in her first public appearance Wednesday in Syracuse. She met privately for an hour with local politicians, then spoke to reporters for all of 30 seconds before being hustled away by an aide.
Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll said she "seemed pleasant" and added: "I think she's certainly well-read."
Former federal prosecutor Dan French said she would return to Syracuse to talk more.
"People need to let her jump into this," French said. "She's doing everything she can to meet people and hear from people, and she's just begun."
Later in the day, in Buffalo, she opened up enough to speak publicly for about two minutes. But she was surrounded by security and media so it's doubtful the public caught even a glimpse of her.
The trip did not get good reviews.
"A drive-by visit," the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle called it, urging her to come back and talk publicly to real people, not politicians.
By comparison, when Clinton came through Buffalo on her "listening tour" in August 1999, she dropped in on labor leaders, business leaders, ministers, family picnics and house parties. It was part of a long, concerted effort to showcase Clinton all over the state.
The then-first lady had an advantage Kennedy doesn't: Time. She started introducing herself in mid-1999, more than a year before the election. Kennedy has only until January, or February at the latest, before Paterson makes his decision.
Kennedy's public outreach so far may be scant, but her private talks have already paid dividends. Kevin Sheekey -- the man behind Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stillborn presidential campaign -- has been promoting her privately, according to Democrats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations are private.
The backroom lobbying also centers around political operative Josh Isay, a former top aide to Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer whose clients include Kennedy, Bloomberg and civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who effectively endorsed Kennedy's bid last week when he took her out for soul food at Sylvia's in Harlem.
Those sorts of overlapping loyalties strike some as undemocratic, even in a process where a non-elected governor -- Paterson rose to the office when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace -- is picking a non-elected senator.
"It looks like Bloomberg is creating a cadre of philosopher kings and queens drawn from the elite," said Doug Muzzio, professor of politics at Baruch College. "I don't know that it's a positive development for New York politics, irrespective of her and her qualifications."
Bloomberg has lavished praise on her, and the politically powerful Kennedy clan has vowed to do everything they can to support her bid.
After her meal with Sharpton at Sylvia's, an appearance that is one of the rituals of running for statewide office in New York, Kennedy briefly addressed reporters waiting outside.
"I have, you know, quite a lot to learn, but I feel like I bring a lot with me, as well," she said. "This is a time when nobody can afford to sit out. And I hope that I have something to offer."