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Carolyn Maloney swerves into the Senate race

Carolyn Maloney
Written by City Hall News
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There is Carolyn Maloney, after throwing her back out from unloading another candidate’s posters from a car, laying on the floor of campaign headquarters that election night with her feet in the air, calculating vote tallies in her head as the results of each machine arrive.

There is Carolyn Maloney, so caught up in a speech about getting people involved in Al Gore’s presidential campaign ahead of the 2000 primaries, suddenly declaring, “We’re going to charter a plane! And we’re going to fly to New Hampshire!”

There is Carolyn Maloney, literally pulling campaign literature of opponents of candidates she is backing from the hands of strangers.

There is Carolyn Maloney, who can boast of an extensive record of substantive bills passed in her 16 years in the House, but who still has many in the delegation more willing to call her a lightweight than a close friend.

There is Carolyn Maloney, who has taken advantage of demographics and national trends to methodically oversee the reduction of the Republican Party in the Silk Stocking district into an organization that has readjusted to dreaming, maybe one day, of breaking 36 percent in any local election, Carolyn Maloney, a woman eager to show power by constantly exercising that power, still picking candidates for civil court and the executive committee of the Lexington Democratic Club.

There is Carolyn Maloney, ripping into Kirsten Gillibrand broad and hard for voting against the two stimulus bills and for changing her positions on several core Democratic issues, sounding out her case on the fly as, “It’s the NRA, it’s immigration, it’s all these other things. In fact, I got a call from someone from Puerto Rico, said [Gillibrand] went to Puerto Rico and came out for English-only [education]. And he said, ‘It was like saying n—r to a Puerto Rican,’” she said, using the full racial slur. “I don’t know—I don’t know if that’s true or not. I just called. I’m just throwing that out. All of her—well, what does she stand for?”

There is Carolyn Maloney, a latently ambitious member of Congress who never expected to actually be running for Senate, but who people are starting to believe might just be crazy enough to go through with her run against the bare-knuckled political player picked by David Paterson and backed by Charles Schumer and Barack Obama—and if all goes right, to wage another gleefully underestimated campaign that might just be crazy enough to work.

In those final days before Caroline Kennedy imploded, Paterson met with back-ups while down in Washington for the inauguration. Gillibrand, Rep. Steve Israel and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown were re-interviewed. Maloney, who had pushed surprisingly hard and even picked up some endorsements during the process she now will only talk about as “the thing,” was not invited.

Four nights later, post-Caroline, Maloney was sitting in her Washington home, still holding out hope. Everyone knew the pick would be announced the next morning and speculation had already settled on Gillibrand. But in a decision fueled by equal parts anxiety, frustration and superstition, Maloney rushed to Union Station to catch a train for New York. Somewhere along the way, she missed a call from Paterson to tell her she was not getting picked. When they finally connected later that night, he pressed her to come to Albany along with all the other runners-up for the appointment announcement. She pressed him to tell her who his pick was. Neither said yes.

Though she kept up the façade of being interested in running over the next few months, the plan gradually developed that she would support someone else. Israel moved quickly to put his campaign together, and she was ready to endorse him before he called to let her know his decision to accept the president’s request to step aside.

Israel was non-committal about what she and the other prospective candidates might do next. He still supported the idea of primaries, but he was not about to get mixed up with another one just yet.

“I specifically told her that she should not allow my situation to define her situation, that she should make her own independent judgment,” Israel said, recounting the call.

What Maloney heard was him encouraging her to run in his place.

Unintended consequences have defined Maloney’s career. Increasingly active as an advocate in Spanish Harlem and as a staffer, she ignored warnings against entering a special election for City Council in 1982 in a district drawn to include Carnegie Hill instead of Central Harlem as a way of giving the lock to the leaders of Spanish Harlem. Several candidates ran. When the dust settled, the Latino candidates split the vote. The barons of El Barrio suddenly had a Southern belle as their woman at City Hall.

Still nurturing the obsession with the allocation of city money that originally drove her into politics, the new Council member began poring through contracts late into the night. She started harping on the approvals being passed and got then-Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr. to create the Contracts Committee for her to chair, delving deeper and deeper until she eventually started worrying about how close her investigations were taking her to mafia connections. Frightened to the point of sometimes wondering whether she could start her car safely, she went to see then-Police Commissioner Lee Brown about protection. “Don’t worry,” Maloney remembers Brown telling her as he pointed out the mob’s conservative attitude toward assassinating politicians, “they’re not going to kill me, and they’re not going to kill you.”

The mafia was not the only enemy she had made. By then, the Dinkins administration was fed up with the problems she had caused, and in an attempt to stop her, they redrew her Council district for the 1991 election to include a much more significant piece of the reliably Republican Upper East Side. Maybe she would lose. At least she would be given a significant scare. Either way, they figured, they could get her to shut up.

Instead, Maloney won by another safe margin, even with a primary challenger put up by a rival Assembly member. Meanwhile, the campaign forced her to make significant inroads to many new areas of a Congressional district that by then had already voted against Bella Abzug, Mark Green, and Andrew Stein in favor of the very popular Bill Green.

And so came another unintended consequence. Maloney wavered on a final decision about challenging Green, not committing to the race until the night before petitioning. Even when she did, few Republicans were aware of her running, let alone taking her seriously. But she whipped up some effective campaign attacks, including a piece of literature with a graph showing how many federal appropriations to the city had declined over Green’s years in Washington—“74 percent, undisputed number,” Maloney still proclaims—and a line of “Who needs a member of Congress who votes against the economic interests of New York City?” Helped by Bill Clinton’s strong showing in New York that year, she narrowly edged out Green. In 1994, she dispatched Charles Millard—a handsome young Council member then seen as the bright star of the local GOP—by a 64-35 margin by simply hanging Newt Gingrich, elsewhere quite popular that year but reviled in New York, around Millard’s neck.

And now, once again, another unintended consequence: With Schumer and the White House stepping in to scare Israel—and, with him, several other potential challengers—out of the water, Maloney has had the competition cleared to run against Gillibrand, and enough blowback from the D.C. bigfooting to give her more momentum than anyone would have guessed.

Maybe the White House did not take her seriously, or at least did not take the idea that she would really abandon her seniority in the House seriously. Maybe it was because no one in the political office knew if she could be counted on to say yes to the president when he called. Or maybe, Maloney suggested, there was not really such a desperate desire to see her leave the race.

“I’m not so clear the White House wanted it,” she said. “If the White House wanted it, why didn’t they get off their duff and call me?”

Running now, she said, is simple common sense.

“I consider myself cautious. I generally plan ahead,” she said. “Look at Moses. He was in the desert for what, 50 years? Because he didn’t have a plan. I always have a plan. I have a plan on how to pass Sept. 11 health. Has it been successful? I keep trying. I have a plan on the Second Avenue Subway and the East Side Queens-Manhattan connector. I have a plan on the CFIUS [Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States] bill.”

[Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States

Talking about the Senate race is no departure from that kind of caution. Just look at the polls, like Marist’s, released on July 1, showing her up 38 to 37, or Rasmussen’s, released July 16, which had her up, 33 to 27. But what has her really excited is the poll she commissioned from Doug Schoen, which showed her up 34 to 32 percent over Gillibrand on the straight horserace question, up 43 to 28 percent after respondents heard positive arguments about Maloney, and up even more, at 49 to 25 percent, after respondents heard negative arguments on Maloney and Gillibrand. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s consistent showing of just under a third of voters was good news, too—not only has McCarthy taken herself out of the running and said she would support Maloney, but their names are so similar that many people would probably pull the Maloney lever next September under the impression they were in fact voting for the heroic anti-gun advocate drawn into politics by the heart-wrenching murder of her husband on the LIRR.

“On paper, the race looks very strong,” explained Richard Fife, the campaign manager Maloney has hired.

But things are not so simple as that portion of the poll might suggest. Maloney had Schoen pull the kind of probing questions that most candidates use to assemble baseline opposition research into themselves before moving forward. Instead, the poll presented her negatives by conflating Maloney’s votes on school choice, empowering law enforcement to fight terrorism and raising taxes into one question, and found 50 percent of those questioned saw that as a convincing argument against her. By comparison, 44 percent of people found a question about her being out of touch from living on the Upper East Side a convincing argument against her. The number of people convinced by other arguments the poll raised against her—that she has spent most of her energy fighting for the largely ignored Equal Rights Amendment, that she is a career politician and that she was passed over by Paterson—went steadily down with each question.

Not that these are the kinds of things regularly considered negatives by Democratic primary voters, as opposed to the arguments presented against Gillibrand (of which there were more in the poll), including questions that pointed out that she is “too conservative,” “has not told the truth about her work for the tobacco industry,” and interned for Al D’Amato. No question, all these statements would be problematic in a Democratic primary if voters knew them. Whether Maloney will amass the money, resources and attention to make that happen, all while combating what Gillibrand throws at her, is much less clear.

But the biggest problem discovered by the poll, according to one person who saw the results before they were made public, might be the responses to a question not included in the version provided to the press. Asked whom they would vote for if they knew Gillibrand had the support of Schumer and Obama, people chose Gillibrand over Maloney 50-24—no small factor given that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has so far stuck by the commitment to back Gillibrand, and Schumer will himself be up for election to a third term next year, allowing him to actively campaign with the junior senator at his side in neighborhoods where he runs strong but where she needs the boost. Many expect that Schumer could go so far as to jointly pay for commercials and other campaign promotions with Gillibrand (federal law allows this coordination), both lifting her popularity by constant association with him and enabling her to do even more with her increasingly sizable war chest.

“By the end of the race, people are going to think her name is Kirsten Gillibrand-Schumer,” as one person closely watching the race joked.

Already, the Gillibrand team is beginning to sharpen its knives for Maloney. They are preparing, as was going to be the case for Israel, to paint her as not liberal enough, though the lift will be much harder given Maloney’s consistent leftward record. Gillibrand will counter Maloney’s record and rhetoric of “before someone tells you what they’re going to do, ask them what they’ve done” by putting herself forward as the senator for New York’s future, an Obama-like candidate of promise and character not bound up in the mistakes of the past. Maloney will argue that she led the charge for years on behalf of the Sept. 11 health bill, while Gillibrand will point out that there was not the groundswell of support for its passage before she helped rewrite several of its provisions in signing on to be the lead sponsor of the Senate bill (with Schumer making sure she got the chance and the limelight for doing so at a perfectly timed moment to take a shot across the bow of Maloney’s nascent campaign). Gillibrand’s campaign will attempt to garrote Maloney with her own record, pointing out contradictions between promises and actions over the years, harping on her votes for the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. Both, a Gillibrand advisor confirmed, will be made into issues in the campaign, even as they prepare to spar over who has had the more progressive-palatable record of rolling back funding or statutes in the years since.

The C-SPAN clip with Maloney’s floor statement in casting her vote to authorize George W. Bush’s use of force could quickly become a mini-internet sensation. Watch the video one way, and it is vintage “kooky Carolyn,” a somewhat rambling three minutes touching on her veteran brother’s birthday, a long quotation from Abraham Lincoln and a conversation she had just had with the British permanent representative to the United Nations—before she almost breaks down in tears as she casts her vote. Not only did Maloney vote the wrong way, Gillibrand can argue to Democrats, but she did it in a way that hardly embodies bold, decisive leadership. Watch it another way, though, and the video documents a politician’s sincere (or masterfully acted) emotional attempt to put a bundle of conflicted thoughts into words. (Several years later, Maloney recanted her vote on the war, calling it a mistake. These days, she says she was swayed by Colin Powell and the other military men whom she believes were telling the truth to her, though she does not know if she can say the same of the Bush administration.)

Fast forward to the campaign trail next year. In many respects, the two women are remarkably similar: both have gotten ahead in politics in races they were expected to lose, both have interpersonal styles that have won them more political successes than political friends.

“Gillibrand will storm into a room, knock you out of the way, and not even make eye contact with you. Maloney will walk into the room, make eye contact with you, and then use an elbow,” explained one person who has worked with them both. “It’s not like you have this huge contrast between likeable and unlikeable or great depth and little depth.”

No one doubts Gillibrand’s performance throughout will be perfectly polished, erudite, pumping out answer after answer of reasoned, road-tested, compelling statements. Maloney, meanwhile—barring a major change of persona or consultant intervention—will be much like she was in that floor speech, armed with a number of firm talking points that go right for the gut, but powered more by an instinctual ability to seize voters at their cores. Some people will feel embarrassed by her. Some people will feel connected with her. Some people will feel smarter. Some people will feel like she is just like them. How many there are of each could go a long way in determining who wins the nomination.

Gillibrand

Maloney knows she is going to be outraised and outspent. Even with the speculation about her Senate campaign rising in the last few weeks of the quarter, she put only $600,000 in the bank compared to Gillibrand’s $1.5 million (Maloney’s staff insists that the lower take is a result of her intentions not being clear or full-throated before the deadline). She also knows that the main argument quoted for the Senate Democrats’ forcing the White House to shove Israel out of the race was to preserve money for more competitive general elections elsewhere around the country, given that the conventional wisdom has a New York primary costing at least $20 million.

All the more reason for the candidates to agree at the outset to a self-enforced spending limit.

“I would go, ‘Let’s have public debates and not spend anything,” she said. “But I know she’s not going to go for that. So I thought $5 million be reasonable. Don’t you? I think that would be reasonable.”

When pressed for details about the cap, she changed her mind.

“Do you think $5 million’s reasonable or should it be $3 million?” she asked. “Maybe $3 million. I’m going to go for $3 million. I think $3 million’s more appropriate.”

In the absence of such an agreement, and with the Gillibrand fundraising and political operations ramping up, some have suggested that Maloney might choose to self-finance. She had a reported household net worth of between $11.5 and $62 million last year, making her one of the wealthier members of Congress.

She declined to discuss whether this had been considered as an option.

“That’s a personal question. And, you know, it’s my husband’s money,” she said. “So you better call him up.”

Reached at his office, her husband, Clifton Maloney, declined comment on the question.

Meanwhile, the congresswoman is beginning, also somewhat on the fly, to craft statewide policy proposals beyond campaign ground rules. As a senator, she would plan to continue focusing on women’s and financial issues, saying she is eager for the chance to push parts of her agenda that have floundered on the other side of the Capitol. More specifically, she wants to see a high-speed rail link not just up to Buffalo, but on into Canada, she said, and would like to see a new convention center built in Seneca Falls.

Maloney’s larger proposal is to create a coordinated network between the state’s research centers, biotech companies and a new industrial base. Medicines and techniques are being discovered in the leading research centers already here, she explains, so the natural next step is to create the infrastructure to market and manufacture the discoveries in-state as well.

Maloney approaches issues less focused on the details and more on the broad rhetoric and long-term tactics for how to get things passed. She tends to talk of both politics and policy in black-and-white terms: there is her way to go forward, and then there is the morally reprehensible, nonsensical, wrong option of not doing whatever she is discussing at the time. Depending on who is telling the story, her career is either the product of dumb luck or playing dumb—her fans sometimes compare her to Columbo, always pushing with just one more question that ultimately reveals that she knew what she was doing all along.

Now, thanks to an accelerated timetable courtesy of the White House’s early intervention, Maloney has only weeks to begin showing which one of these is right. So far, she has been doing a wily wink-and-nod, constantly implying that over the last six months, every politician who has spoken kindly of her, every person who has attended one of her events, every dollar that she has raised, might very well be taken as an indication of the support she has going into a race against Gillibrand. This is not quite the case, and once she actually does announce—even if it is the more timid announcement of an exploratory committee rather than a full campaign—the game will quickly have to end. There will not be any more room for the ambiguity over things like the Bill Clinton fundraiser, which she without fail brought up in response to questions about Senate campaign’s mounting progress in the weeks leading up to the event, but when pressed about whether his attendance constituted an endorsement, said only, “You’ll have to ask him. He knows I’m running for Senate. He knows I’m running for Senate. I can’t, I can’t answer for other people. And it’s very difficult now because Mrs. Clinton is now the secretary of state. She is in a non-political position of great importance for our country.”

She added, “I’m very close to both of them.”

Underlying this and the Gillibrand camp’s rapid response to the news of the fundraiser by reminding everyone that the former president had done an event for the senator as well, is a grasping for at least the tacit approval of the woman who held the seat until January. Unfortunately for both, though, Clinton’s only demand for the appointee to her old seat—that the person picked had backed her in the presidential primaries, unlike Caroline Kennedy, whose “candidacy” she was viscerally opposed to—will be met no matter whether Maloney or Gillibrand wins the primary. But while former Clinton staffers have joined and left Gillibrand’s staff, the secretary of state will likely be too focused on international diplomacy, or at the very least, too wary of returning to the entanglements of New York politics, to provide either candidate with the massive game-changer endorsement that given to one could easily end the other’s viability in a primary.

Which means that the Maloney campaign, despite delays that have been explained by everything from concern over how the Clinton fundraiser would appear to the news of Mark Sanford’s affair dominating the political headlines, is for real.

Probably.

Maloney always thrives on chaos, but these days have been more chaotic than ever. Surrounded by consultants who she has sometimes complained are pushing her into the race, staffers in her Congressional office worried about losing their jobs if she loses and a close circle prone to sniping at each other while all claiming to know her true thoughts, she has been determined to run and convinced she can win in the morning, then wavering again by the afternoon. No matter who she talks to about running, she almost always eventually admits that if things do not go well in the race, she has until the state convention next May to drop out and run for re-election to her House seat.

There is a rough strategy being mapped out on the second floor of the converted East Side townhouse apartment that serves as campaign headquarters and over frequent conference calls. There is not the level of staff hired nor the kind of intricate month-long schedule going forward from the announcement that Israel’s campaign had planned. Given the forces aligned against her and the money Gillibrand is raising, this inaction and indecisiveness could quickly become a problem, especially with concerns about how many years have passed since her last competitive election and the worry that on some level, she is stumbling into the race only out of boredom now that there are no other competitive local races that need her attention. But if she does get moving, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of the primary electorate is from New York City, that Maloney has decades of relatively high name recognition from a reliably progressive record, that Gillibrand really is—or was—further to the right than the vast majority of New York Democrats. Executed correctly, a Maloney for Senate campaign could prove more of a problem than anyone expected.

And at this point, there may be no one but Maloney herself who can stop it from happening.

On the one hand, Maloney has everything to lose. She is already chair of the Joint Economic Committee, and, considering her age (63) and the ages of those ahead of her in seniority on the Financial Services Committee (Chairman Barney Frank is 69, Pennsylvania Rep. Paul Kanjorski is 72 and California Rep. Maxine Waters is 70), she has an all-but-certain path to a gavel that has only grown more powerful in recent months with the government’s long-term stakes in private businesses. She is far from poor, and no one doubts she would land on her feet as the head of some foundation or advocacy group if she wanted, but ceding nine terms of seniority in Washington and the status as queen bee of the Upper East Side would not be easy.

On the other hand, though some of her policy initiatives might suffer if she ran, with the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights signed into law already, much of the financing for the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access in place, and enough steam behind the Paid Family Leave Act and Sept. 11 Health Bill to give her confidence they will pass, there is not much to hold over her head. She is older than Israel and has more seniority, and there is less of a future political career to realistically be able to threaten her about impeding.

And as just about everyone who knows her says, the surest way to get her into the race is for people to keep telling her that she cannot run and cannot win. She has heard that line before, in all the other races she was not supposed to be in and win. This time, unlike her other surprise upsets, they already see her coming. But she remains as confident as ever nonetheless.

“I’ve never lost an election,” she said. “I don’t intend to start now.”

ABOVE: (right) Maloney has a long road ahead in her run against the Democratic establishment, but with funding for the construction of more Second Avenue Subway tunnels and other signature projects secure, she seems confident she can proceed without major consequences. Photos by Andrew Schwart

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