Primary could upset Dem bosses’ apple cart

One of the most interesting political races in New York is the upcoming primary between Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and the improbable senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. During her first term as a congresswoman, Gillibrand represented her upstate district by taking so-called “blue dog Democrat” positions, including anti-immigration; anti-gay marriage; and pro-gun stances. We are pretty sure that her appointment to the Senate was political muscle delivered by the Big Boys in Democratic politics.

The precipitous drop in David Paterson’s favorability ratings came immediately after his appointment of Gillibrand. At the time he was considering who to appoint, I said that it was a no-brainer — Caroline Kennedy would be a brilliant appointment. After Kennedy, I thought the appointment of Maloney would have made great sense. After all, Maloney has an incredible list of accomplishments, ranging from credit card reform to heading the prestigious Joint Economic Committee in the Congress.

Gillibrand, who was introduced at her appointment by Governor Paterson, faces some major hurdles, having alienated many Democratic voters. After all, there are a lot of gay voters who will never forget her tough stance on gay marriage. Add to that the Latino groups who were not pleased with her stance on immigration or all those folks in the New York City region who think that this country’s permissive attitude toward guns is utterly nuts, and you have a sizeable group of voters who won’t be happy when they hear about Gillibrand’s voting record. Her defense, of course, is that she was just doing a good job of representing her district and that her views, as Chuck Schumer once said, are evolving. Others have a less kind description of that kind of evolution. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of political ads showing the two faces of Gillibrand. Her varying approaches will be made to demonstrate a lack of commitment to anything but winning.

The Democratic heavies seem determined to drive Maloney from the race. She was put on the defensive for repeating a story from somewhere else that used the N-word. Even the Reverend Al Sharpton, who is a Maloney supporter, rapped her knuckles for that. Then a group of committed liberal women shot off a letter to Gillibrand, telling her to cut out the dirty tricks and stick to the issues. Senator Chuck now says that he is not opposed to a primary. That’s good because the people deserve the right to make a decision. Primaries are one of the tent poles of American democracy. They were put in place to stop the political bosses from making all the decisions.

Going in, it looks like a close race. Maloney will clearly be the underdog, and that’s just where she should be. The bosses have regularly been thwarted in New York in their attempts to ram candidates down the throats of the voters. Take Mario Cuomo. All the money and almost all the big boys were for Ed Koch, once a liberal and now one of the most reprehensible conservative voices in the country. It would appear that the voters knew something that the Democratic bosses didn’t. In any case, I smell the same thing here. The polling shows Maloney just slightly behind. She doesn’t have nearly the money that the big boys will raise for Gillibrand.

Gillibrand will have her hands full. I can just see the campaign ads showing the newly appointed Democratic senator standing next to Big Al D’Amato, a close family friend. That’s going to be some political advertisement. The fact that Maloney has the guts to leave a comfortable and powerful spot in the House of Representatives to primary Gillibrand has to be impressive to potential voters. I’ve known her for years and admire her greatly. I don’t know if I’d have the guts to do what she is doing. One advantage she has is that she will be running in the city and that’s where the Democratic primary voters are. I think the bosses need to re-examine what they have done here.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 7/30/09

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