Astute observers of Empire State politics may be taking cruel delight in the delicious irony surrounding Governor David Patterson, currently perched on the horns of a dilemma created in large measure by his own party.
He remains besieged by seemingly indefatigable forces pushing him to place Kennedy heiress Sweet Caroline in Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.
A recent Rasmussen poll, however, indicates that while a significant majority of voters like the lady well enough, fewer than four in ten feel she is qualified for a seat in the upper chamber. The gallows humor in this tale is found in Paterson’s Albany history and the very different future he and his cronies had envisioned for him.
Our story, as later revealed by Irene Liu and other Albany reporters, begins in the spring of 2006, when Eliot Spitzer and the New York Democratic Party found themselves in a bit of a bind. The Sheriff of Wall Street was a solid contender for the governor’s mansion, but he hailed from the affluent side of the tracks and was several shades too white for his party’s diversity minded handlers. Paterson, being both African-American and legally blind, was exactly what the ticket needed. The problem was that David held the Senate minority leader position and was a rising star in his own right. He had little interest in being lieutenant governor, a position often viewed as a political dead end in New York. Clearly, some sort of “understanding” would be required.
The salve for that particular wound came in the form of Hillary Clinton. It was no secret that she had been planning a run at the White House and the prevailing wisdom indicated she had a fairly good shot at it. Albany insiders tell us that Paterson was to be given head of the line privileges for the Senate appointment if he would fill up Spitzer’s dance card in the governor’s race. Spitzer himself was already being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, particularly by those hungry for a return to Rockefeller-era New York political hegemony. But with the frisky governor’s fall from grace, Paterson finds himself in nearly the exact opposite position. He sits in an embattled governor’s seat, tainted with the scent of his predecessor and hardly a sure bet for reelection, while facing the task of appointing someone else to the plumb position who will prove a far harder sell than he would have been.
Ms. Kennedy is helping matters not at all and is currently battling what’s being dubbed “the Utica problem.” Upstate voters in the vast rural, agricultural counties — critical to any chance of reelection in 2010 — seem unsure as to whether the Camelot Beauty has ever seen any portions of New York beyond the five boroughs, except perchance through the windows of a private jet. Her curious attempt at pronouncing “Rochester” during this week’s expedition to the Northwest did little to assuage their concerns. Democratic Party honchos would do well to remember Elizabeth McCaughey, an earlier lieutenant gubernatorial hopeful, who once famously proved unable to identify corn when riding past a field of it and nearly cost George Pataki his own election.
The heiress is also saddling Paterson with some demographic challenges of her own. While benefiting from a lack of Y chromosomes, she is still quite clearly a member in good standing of the Wealthy Whites, while the governor recently went on record bemoaning the “lack of diversity” in candidates for open judicial seats. Appointing Kennedy will doubtlessly further aggravate Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who is an accomplished and popular African-American politico and former member of the state senate himself. Brown has been frantically waving his arms in an effort to get anyone to notice that he would like the job, only to watch the media virtually ignore him as they follow Caroline around like a pack of fawning puppies. (Their efforts seem to have gone largely in vain, since Her Highness rarely deigns to answer any questions from the press corps.) Other diversity-friendly candidates previously mentioned in this space, each with resumes far more fleshed out than Kennedy’s tabula rasa, have been similarly ignored. This combination of factors will make it increasingly dicey for Paterson to knuckle under to the DNC’s wishes in the matter.
In the end, though, David Paterson is still a one person voting block. There are no constitutional impediments to Kennedy replacing Clinton, and the governor will be able to send her off to Washington should he wish. One is left wondering, however, if this won’t prove a bridge too far for New York voters, already exhausted from scandals and drama.
Unlike the aforementioned dreams of the Democrats, should Kennedy prove weak on the campaign trail and her appointment an additional anchor around Paterson’s neck, the party may lose both a governor’s chair and a Senate slot to the Republicans in one of the bluest states of all.