Caroline Kennedy’s trial balloon candidacy for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate seat was springing a few leaks over the past few days — so she’s made her ambitions more explicit and hired one of New York’s top political consultants to gain some altitude.
After a week of coy courtship and low-key feelers, Kennedy began working the phones in earnest Monday — and signed up major Democratic fixer Josh Isay, who has deep connections to New York powerhouses Sen. Charles Schumer, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Kennedy spoke with Sharpton on Monday, and he said he told her about another “lady that wanted to run for U.S. Senate [who] came to Harlem, to the House of Justice, and they told me she wasn’t qualified; they told me she was just there because of who she was married to — and that was Hillary Clinton.”
Sharpton said Kennedy chuckled.
Monday’s outreach efforts came as the 51-year-old former first daughter had begun to receive withering criticism about her lack of political experience.
“She had to work to undo the buzz for the last week — New Yorkers were starting to say, ‘We don’t know her,’ ‘She’s got no experience,’ ‘She’s presumptuous,’” said a top New York Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“That’s why hiring Josh makes a lot of sense,” the person added. “She doesn’t know anybody, and he’s the guy to make the introductions and guide her through the process.”
Hiring Isay accomplishes several goals for Kennedy. It signals her seriousness to Gov. David Paterson, who has been cool to her weeklong whisper campaign; it initiates her courtship of state power brokers who know her only through the media and the History Channel; and it “scares the s—-” out of lesser-known Democrats actively pursuing the appointment, the New York Democrat said.
Although she may be helping herself with her New York moves, one longtime operative active in New York City campaigns said Kennedy may also be getting a boost from the scandal surrounding Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s attempts to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat: If Paterson appoints a star like Kennedy, he can probably spare himself any allegation that he’s been bought off.
“Post-Illinois, [Paterson] has to make this a big person,” the insider said.
For a novice, Kennedy was working the phones like a pro on Monday, reaching out to prominent state pols, including Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Schumer, who said at a press conference Monday that he’d “talked to Caroline Kennedy, and she is clearly interested.”
“She told me she was running,” recalled Quinn, who said Kennedy called her to tell her about her decision — and not to ask for her endorsement. “She said she was in it — she was rolling up her sleeves and was jumping in.”
New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who is close to Kennedy, described her decision as the third step of a move into public life that began with her children leaving for college and her deciding to stump for Barack Obama during his primary battle against Clinton.
“For the most part, a freshman senator is someone you don’t know — unless you’re addicted to Politico.com,” said Klein, who hired Kennedy — at $1 a year — to help raise cash from private donors for city schools. “But everybody knows who Caroline Kennedy is. … And she would have tremendous access, obviously, to the president-elect.”
The ultimate decision is Paterson’s alone, and it’s unclear how the governor, who is grappling with a nightmarish state budget deficit and continued uncertainty over his own political future, will react to Kennedy’s game-changing declaration.
It’s also unclear how former Kennedy in-law Andrew Cuomo — now New York’s attorney general — will respond to her efforts after a week in which he signaled his own interest in the Clinton seat.
Lower-profile rivals aren’t so circumspect — and predict her presence will thin the herd of wannabes.
“It’s a tough thing—you can’t run against the little girl at the funeral,” said an adviser to one of Kennedy’s main rivals, referring to the image of young Caroline at JFK’s interment.
“If she wants it, I don’t see how anyone will stop her.”