Beyond the Bluster, Few Willing to Step Up in N.Y.

Posted March 4, 2009 at 6:25pm

Ask Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) whether she plans to challenge appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in the Senate primary next year, and she’ll tell you about her legislative agenda.

“I’m working hard,— she said in an interview this week. “I’m trying to pass my credit card holder’s bill of rights. I’m chairman of the Joint Economic Committee now.—

Ask Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) the same question, and the usually loquacious Upper West Sider offers a terse “no comment.—

Given the way she was appointed, the outcry her appointment caused in traditional liberal circles and the fact that she isn’t from New York City or well-known at all statewide, Gillibrand has been viewed as almost certain to get a Democratic primary challenge in 2010.

But even though a handful of Members of Congress continue to see their names floated as possible candidates, political professionals in New York and Washington, D.C., are becoming increasingly convinced that none of them will run.

All appear to have something to lose: a safe seat, a plum committee assignment, a pet project not yet completed. None seems keen on doing what it would take to raise the millions of dollars necessary to bloody Gillibrand — whose money-raising prowess is already legendary. None seems eager to incur the wrath of the state’s senior Senator, Charles Schumer (D), who is one of Gillibrand’s top patrons.

“Will a Congressman give up a safe Congressional seat — will a Maloney or a Nadler or someone like that give up a safe Congressional seat to chance a primary or a general election?— asked Joseph Mercurio, a political consultant in New York who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans. “Don’t think so.—

A New York-based Democratic consultant and lobbyist put it more succinctly: “I don’t think anybody’s going to have their s— together to run a statewide race— against Gillibrand.

Which doesn’t mean that Gillibrand won’t get a formidable Democratic primary foe. Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown could be in the mix. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer are occasionally mentioned, though their statewide appeal may be limited. Two-thirds of the Democratic primary vote is in New York City and its suburbs, and Gillibrand is from upstate.

Even if Gillibrand emerges from the primary unscathed, she could face a tough general election despite New York’s strong Democratic lean. Both Rep. Peter King and former Gov. George Pataki have spoken to the National Republican Senatorial Committee about the 2010 Senate race — and Gov. David Paterson’s abysmal poll numbers could be a drag on the entire Democratic ticket, provided he is the gubernatorial nominee.

In the meantime, the chatter about House Members persists. On the January day when Paterson appointed Gillibrand, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D) spoke openly of taking her on in 2010. McCarthy, whose husband was killed when a gunman opened fire on a Long Island commuter train in 1993, said Gillibrand’s opposition to gun control would form the basis of her challenge.

This week, McCarthy was still talking — and taking some steps toward making a statewide run. In an interview, she said she had recently hired a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., and that one of the staff members in her district office had resigned to concentrate full time on raising money.

An independent poll released this week showed Gillibrand and McCarthy in a statistical dead heat in a hypothetical primary. In the Marist College poll of 480 registered Democrats taken Feb. 25-26, Gillibrand had 36 percent, McCarthy had 33 percent and 31 percent were undecided. The poll had an error margin of 4.5 points.

“I’m watching [Gillibrand] and her votes,— McCarthy said. “There’s plenty of people watching her and looking at running. A year from now, they’ll take a look at what’s going on.—

McCarthy conceded that she is encouraged by Gillibrand’s initial Senate votes on gun safety legislation.

“So far, she’s doing pretty good,— McCarthy said. “I’m glad I raised my voice and raised my concerns.—

The Congresswoman also predicted that Gillibrand would have far more money in the bank at the end of this campaign finance reporting period than she would — noting that Gillibrand has been calling some of her donors in search of contributions. But she seemed unconcerned.

“It’s very early, obviously,— she said.

Beyond McCarthy’s overt moves, Nadler, Maloney and fellow New York Democratic Reps. Steve Israel and José Serrano are keeping their names alive to one degree or another.

One Congressional insider suggested this week that all would like to run — in part because they each think they’re better-qualified than Gillibrand — but are unlikely to do so for a variety of reasons.

Israel and Maloney both traveled around the state in the late fall and early winter when Paterson was contemplating whom to appoint to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) in the Senate after she had been nominated as secretary of State. Israel continues to do so to a certain extent — and was also recently named the chief recruiter for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which will keep his profile high in Washington, D.C., and around the country, but could limit his ability to put together a Senate campaign.

Israel’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

A source on Capitol Hill said this week that Serrano appears to be looking at a possible Senate run more closely than he was a few weeks ago. Although he would have to give up his post as an Appropriations cardinal, Serrano will be 67 in 2010 and will have served in Congress for 20 years by then. A run for statewide office would free up his House seat for his son, state Sen. José M. Serrano (D), to aim for, though it would not be a coronation for the junior Serrano.

The Congressman’s office did not respond to telephone messages on Wednesday.

While the members of the New York delegation make their calculations, Matt Canter, a spokesman for Gillibrand, said the new Senator isn’t paying attention.

“Sen. Gillibrand is focused on her new job and traveling the state from Buffalo to Brooklyn, listening to citizens talking about their concerns,— Canter said. “She’s focused on her 19 million new constituents, not on campaigns.—

But by most accounts, Gillibrand’s well-oiled political machine, honed in two tough, expensive campaigns for the upstate Congressional seat she held until recently, continues to hum along. Most of the consultants she used on her House campaigns are still on board, and she is raising money at a steady clip. Former President Bill Clinton will headline a fundraiser for Gillibrand in New York next Wednesday.

Even if Gillibrand doesn’t get a high-profile primary opponent, a coalition of progressive leaders has been meeting regularly to discuss the possibility of recruiting a challenger.

Jonathan Tasini, an author and labor activist who took 17 percent of the vote against Clinton in her 2006 Senate primary, said the group is convinced “a significant primary challenger— will emerge.

“I don’t believe she will win the primary,— he said. “I don’t believe she deserves to be the Senator from New York.—

Gillibrand could face greater obstacles still in the general election. There’s no telling who the Republicans will run or what the state’s political dynamic will be like in 20 months.

In the recently released Marist poll, Paterson’s approval rating was at 26 percent — the lowest for a governor in the poll’s 30-year history. McCarthy said that Paterson’s stature “could bite— Gillibrand in the primary or the general election.

“New York remains a Democratic state,— the Democratic consultant and lobbyist said. “The only thing that could turn it red is David Paterson’s poll numbers.—