The Populist Case for Caroline Kennedy

By Al Giordano

Caroline Kennedy's open support for marriage rights for gays and lesbians in an era when top liberal Democrats can't bring themselves to support it offers the best antidote to the Rick Warren blues yet.

It is in the very best of Kennedy traditions: they're not black, but they were among the white pioneers for Civil Rights. They're not Mexican, but they've fought harder for a path to citizenship for immigrants than most Democrats. So it's no small thing that Caroline Kennedy similarly places this basic human right for gays and lesbians on the same path.

In the context of the Rick Warren flap, that some colleagues would take such a clear, unequivocal and timely statement as an opportunity to parrot a ridiculous New York Times headline to call her views "mainstream Democratic" and "cut from the same cloth as Hillary Clinton's and Chuck Schumer's" (who oppose gay marriage) only demonstrates their own willful refusal to recognize that Caroline Kennedy is the best progressive choice and the surprise herald of change for New York and Democrats nationwide at this crucial hour of history.

And, yes, she (like Ted Kennedy, not merely her uncle but her mentor and confider who consults her on every major move he makes) opposed the Iraq war from the start. And, yes, she supports shutting down the Indian Point nuclear plant. And, yes, she supports the Employee Free Choice Act to resurrect the labor movement.

And, yes, over the next month she'll offer some other views that will put her likewise head and shoulders above the other statewide and Congressional officials whose names have also been floated for the coming appointment to fill Senator Clinton's seat.

I'm going to do two things with this diary.

First, I will outline the positive case for Caroline Kennedy as US Senator from New York.

Second, I've been asked by some readers of The Field to offer counsel as to what Kennedy supporters - we are legion online, but not yet with a "headquarters" (web site) to facilitate our organizing - can do, including New Yorkers and others not in New York, to heighten the conditions by which New York Governor David Paterson, a month or so from now, has the backing to appoint Kennedy as US Senator.

And - to cut through the smokescreen spewed by some Kennedy opponents - let me state clearly that it doesn't matter to me whether the New York governor appoints Kennedy or appoints a "caretaker" (some gray eminence who will keep the seat warm until the 2010 elections without seeking election then) because in the latter case, Kennedy has made it crystal clear that she will run for the seat. And, in the judgment of this election predictor with a track record, she will win that election.

But, But, We Don't Know Enough About Her...

For me it's no mystery how Caroline Kennedy will vote in the Senate - pretty closely to how Ted Kennedy has voted, which means very progressively. I conclude that based on years of reporting on Massachusetts politics (full time from 1988-1996) including of course on the Kennedys and watching the dynamics inside that family including between Teddy and Caroline, and the central role she played in his political organization. They pretty much speak with one voice.

It was no surprise, to me, that Caroline answered recent questions in favor of gay marriage, because that has also been Ted's position for years now. Which is to say, he earns a 100 percent rating from the NAACP, 100 percent from the AFL-CIO, 100 percent from the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), 100 percent by Peace Action-SANE, 89 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, and - his unparalleled leadership toward national health care earns him a 100 percent rating from the American Public Health Association. Anyway, you get the point.

You need not take my word for it, but you might want to seek out other progressives that have similarly followed them closely, including in NY. Here's a clip from the New York Daily News with a quote from a local SEIU president:

Kennedy also met today with 32BJ President Mike Fishman, who sounded very positive after the fact, saying:

"We had a broad discussion about how government can help keep people out of poverty. She is on the right side of issues we care about, including creating good jobs, health care, green jobs and employee free choice. I thought she was very down to earth, a good listener, and clearly committed to representing New Yorkers in the Senate."

Did you hear - kind readers - the deafening silence from her critics when it became clear that Caroline Kennedy likewise supports gay marriage rights? It was almost as if they considered it bad news because it interrupted their "we don't know where she stands" narrative. They should put on their seat belts, because in the three weeks between January first and the presidential inauguration, there will be an exhaustive public rollout of her policy positions in great detail. The shroud of mystery that some have tried to impose on Kennedy is already lifting, and the coming month will be about as pleasant as water-boarding for those that push the false narrative that she doesn't know policy and that her positions are somehow a big question mark.

But, But, Which Issues Will Be Her Priorities?

Beyond a senator's voting record, the best ones tackle certain issues for which they have a passion and knowledge. And I expect, based on her record - yes, she does have one - of advocacy and activism that she will mainly focus on two:

-   Public education (can you name a US Senator that has championed that issue in the ways that Ted Kennedy has pushed health care?)

-   Defending the Bill of Rights (Feingold will have a new friend and ally on that).

A Champion for Public Schools

Chancellor Joel Klein, at the New York City Department of Education since 2002, reached out to Kennedy for help raising money for the tragically under-funded public schools of New York. He testifies:

Under her leadership, The Fund for Public Schools has raised more than $240 million from businesses, foundations and individuals, according to the fund. Schools have used these funds to improve middle schools, improve libraries, provide arts programs and train public school principals.

Some have tried to belittle this work (as they have with everything else Caroline Kennedy has done) citing a recent blog post by reporter Wayne Barrett that claims her work wasn't all that much. Wayne's a fine reporter, but those that cite him don't seem that familiar with his Modus Operandi: He works up the very best and strongest critique of every politician in New York. It's worthy work. But the most he could "get" on Kennedy was the suggestion that others have exaggerated her accomplishments, hardly the stuff of scandal and hardly unique to any politician and her or his enthusiasts.

Barrett made a specious claim that because tax-exempt 501c3 organization filings for the board mentioned Kennedy's pro bono work for "one or two hours a week" that it somehow means that was the limit of her participation.

I'm deeply involved with filing those forms for another 501c3 group once a year, and there is no requirement to list volunteer hours on them.

There may have been legal work she donated as an attorney to The Fund, in which case that might explain its listing in a form that otherwise doesn't require it. But that would not include fundraising or other activities. According to a column Klein wrote for CNN:

Private donors were historically reluctant to make gifts to public schools because there was so little accountability and transparency around spending and outcomes. Caroline created a system that measured results.

A new transparency around outcomes, along with Caroline's proficiency in articulating the goals of our reforms, gave private funders an unprecedented stake in the success of schools and students and attracted large amounts of new funding.

Caroline was highly focused, efficient and hands-on in this effort. She verified the value of her work by visiting schools to see how funds were affecting principals, teachers and students.

In any case, if Barrett is our new arbiter of who would make the best (or worst) senator from New York, you should read some of his more detailed investigations into State Attorney General and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo, who Barrett reports, "gave birth to the mortgage crisis."

You can take it to the bank that if other candidates surface for the Senate seat, Barrett will tell us much about each of them. Upset about "dynasties" so you like US Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand for Senate? Oops! That's Gillibrand nee Rutnick, daughter of powerhouse lobbyist Douglas Rutnick, whose clients include the military contractor known as Lockheed. Like US Rep. Carolyn Maloney? Oops, Maloney voted to authorize the war in Iraq, and from a very liberal congressional district that would have supported her in opposing it. (So did New York Democratic Reps Gary Ackerman, Joseph Crowley, Elliot Engel, Nita Lowey, Carolyn McCarthy, Michael McNulty and Anthony Wiener, and of course Senators Clinton and Schumer.)

Oh, there were New York members of Congress that opposed the war resolution: Gregory Meeks, Jerrold Nadler, Major Owens, Jose Serrano, Louise Slaughter (who endorsed Kennedy), Ed Towns, Nydia Velasquez. They joined Ted Kennedy in doing so.

So let's not pretend that the alternatives to Kennedy are somehow more progressive. On major issues of the day, from the war in Iraq to gay marriage, Caroline Kennedy outflanks most of them and is more progressive.

But back to education: There is a big gaping hole in the US Senate for somebody who could emerge as "the Education Senator." And it's smart politics: Kennedys always do well at the ballot box with elderly voters going back to President John F. Kennedy. Combine that with parents of public schoolchildren, and Caroline is well positioned to built a multi-generational coalition on lunch bucket Democrat issues.

And speaking of generations, this is a 51-year-old that listens to the youth, as Kennedy explains in this Good Morning America interview last winter:

Defending the Constitution

Here's another case of "cognitive dissonance" in some corners of the Netroots, where so much attention was paid to the vote this year on FISA wiretapping: For at least sixteen years, Caroline Kennedy has been a champion of the Bill of Rights. She authored In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action (1992, Harper Perennial) and co-authored, with Ellen Alderman, The Right to Privacy (1997, Vintage). She also edited an anthology, The Patriot's Handbook, in the saber-rattling lead-up to the Iraq war, a counter-force to George W. Bush's distortion of the word "patriot," in which she explained why the right to burn the flag is protected by the First Amendment and that the National Anthem was penned by (gasp) an American socialist.

It's notable that while a significant group of those who backed Senator Clinton for president oppose Kennedy (many honest enough to cite her endorsement of Obama as the reason), one, civil liberties attorney Jeralyn Merritt praises Kennedy's defense of the Constitution. I've mentioned that before, so I'll just use a shorter version of Merritt's words here: "I think she's more than qualified to be a U.S. Senator and I hope she gets the position. We need more Senators who are cognizant and respectful of our constitutional rights. She'll be great for education and funding for the arts."

Here's a link to an interview transcript with Kennedy and co-author Alderman on C-Span's Booknotes program with Brian Lamb. In Our Defense was not a result of "desk authorship" but rather of exhaustive travels and interviews by the two authors, together, to take testimony from Americans whose rights had been violated and/or become the topic of important court cases. After doing the research and determining together what they would say, they wrote alternating chapters. In other words, they didn't write the book by reading and summarizing from other books and court documents - although they did that, too - but went outside the courtrooms to show how Constitutional rights impact real people in daily life. (For those who gripe "but she's never tried a case in court," well, neither did Robert F. Kennedy before he was appointed Attorney General, and to quote Lenny Bruce, "in the halls of justice, the justice is in the halls," in other words, outside of the courtroom.) Reading that interview transcript should also put to bed the conspiracy-laden presumptions by some that Kennedy's co-author was some kind of ghostwriter doing the work. The heavy lifting was clearly equally shared. How many US senators have even bothered to get out of Washington and ask so many everyday Americans about violations to their rights?

There aren't many civil libertarians in the US Senate and the political reality is that there are only a handful of states with electorates that would be supportive of one: New York ought to be one of them. It would be a shame not to send one from there to put the Bill of Rights as front-and-center as it has been for Kennedy since her thirties. Other than a handful of them, notably Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, there's a real drought of senators that understand or care to defend our Constitutional freedoms. As the rollout of Kennedy's policy positions continues, I think we'll be pleased with what she has to say about it (and again, this is partly based on knowing how close she is ideologically to Ted Kennedy, one of the few voices of liberty we have in the Senate).

The Populist Case for Caroline Kennedy

In light of all the above, there's a delicious paradox from those that attempt to define Kennedy as somehow elitist when her positions - like those of Ted - are populist.

But it's been hard to get populist representation out of New York because of the influence of Wall Street and its magnates there.

I'm one of the people who believes the most important advance made by the Obama campaign was to revolutionize political fundraising on a national scale. Others are welcome to think that building a huge small donor base is mere chopped liver, but I think it's the only path to saving the Republic from what has been an ironclad control over politics by corporate interests at least since the dawn of television made campaigns so much more expensive.

Campaigns are especially expensive in New York. The city is the nation's most expensive media market, and upstate markets - Buffalo, Albany-Schenectady-Troy and Syracuse are in the top 100. Beyond them are vast geographical areas, each with their own media markets (Rochester, Binghamton, Long Island, Plattsburgh, Poughkeepsie, Utica, Watertown). It takes a lot of money to run and win in New York (and even more if you're not already well known).

There's been a lot of debate over how much money a US Senate appointee would need to raise to run and win in 2010 (and repeat all over again in 2012). Some say it would be as "low" as $20 million. Others say as high as $70 million. That debate misses the point altogether: the more important question than "how much" is "from whom exactly will those millions be raised?"

New York has only one possible candidate that, once she opens a campaign committee and its website, will be able to raise tens of millions of dollars online - like Obama did - making her free of dependence from the sleazy big money Wall Street Democratic funding machine that has held back other Democrats before her (including, in my opinion, Schumer and Clinton) from being the economically progressive voices that a state as liberal as New York ought to bring to the Senate.

Every single other name that has been mentioned will have to spend ten hours a day calling high donors - who have their price, after all - in order to raise the between $20 million and $70 million (the latter probably more on the mark) it will take to win in 2010 and repeating that process all over again in 2012.

In the summer of 2007, at the Yearly Kos convention (now called Netroots Nation), we were all treated to the embarrassing spectacle of Senator Clinton defending her receipt of millions from DC lobbyists and Political Action Committees with the argument of "lobbyists are people, too."

Meanwhile, New York's senior senator, Chuck Schumer, has perfected the art of doing Wall Street's bidding in Congress while receiving millions from it:

WASHINGTON - As the financial crisis jolted the nation in September, Senator Charles E. Schumer was consumed. He traded telephone calls with bankers, then became one of the first officials to promote a Wall Street bailout. He spent hours in closed-door briefings and a weekend helping Congressional leaders nail down details of the $700 billion rescue package.

The next day, Mr. Schumer appeared at a breakfast fund-raiser in Midtown Manhattan for Senate Democrats. Addressing Henry R. Kravis, the buyout billionaire, and about 20 other finance industry executives, he warned that a bailout would be a hard sell on Capitol Hill. Then he offered some reassurance: The businessmen could count on the Democrats to help steer the nation through the financial turmoil.

"We are not going to be a bunch of crazy, anti-business liberals," one executive said, summarizing Mr. Schumer's remarks. "We are going to be effective, moderate advocates for sound economic policies, good responsible stewards you can trust."

The message clearly resonated. The next week, executives at firms represented at the breakfast sent in more than $135,000 in campaign donations...

That's from a recent NY Times investigative story. Read the whole thing, but here are a few more choice excerpts:

But in building support, he has embraced the industry's free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis...

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations' balance sheets more transparent....

But the S.E.C. concluded that those agreements were inadequate, so Mr. Cox urged Congress to give his agency oversight powers. "Without additional legislative authority, the S.E.C. will not be able to regulate in a thoroughgoing way," he told the Senate banking committee at an April 2006 hearing.

The plan drew broad, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. But executives at the credit-rating agencies soon began pressing Mr. Schumer and other allies in Congress to block the proposal or at least limit its reach, according to current and former employees.

"They knew Schumer would support them," said one former Moody's executive, who asked not to be named because he still works in the industry. "He was their go-to guy," the executive said...

And this is exactly where those that criticize Kennedy for her "name" are missing the boat, or revealing that they don't really care about changing the way that candidates raise funds. A "name" is also a "brand" and while a legacy name - like Clinton or Bush - doesn't easily lead to a small donor renaissance, the Kennedy brand is now intertwined enough with the "Obama brand" - remember all that talk of passing the torch of Camelot, practically making Obama himself an honorary Kennedy - that Caroline Kennedy is super well positioned to continue the small donor rebellion and carry it to greater heights.

And that will have a profoundly cleansing impact on New York politics, where them that have the gold have made the rules for too long now.

Yes, the Kennedy brand has included a president, three senators (two of them damn good ones) and soon probably a fourth. But as Obama demonstrated, the right brand name can be used to make change from the bottom up, including in how campaigns are financed. (And as we've documented above, the policies that Ted Kennedy has championed - health care, minimum wage, Civil Rights, union organizing - are populist and in favor of working men and women, their elders and their children.)

For these reasons and more, I and so many other progressives would like to see Kennedy appointed to the Senate and will, as individuals, support her with contributions and volunteer labor. (And every time somebody makes a crack about her as a "princess" or "doing her nails" or compares her nastily to Governor Palin - Ka-ching! - we will donate again and again! It's a perfect small donor fundraising dynamic... so keep those drive-by insults coming in!)

Organizing Memo: First Steps

What then, can be done by ordinary folks like us to help bring this change?

The Obama model provides a roadmap for how rank-and-file Kennedy supporters can get out in front of her campaign and begin organizing.

There's no use in fretting over the daily sniping at Kennedy by some A-list (and many more B-list) bloggers and pundits. Every time a new Kennedy has run for office - from Teddy in 1962 to Joe in 1986 to Caroline today - those whistles and catcalls come out of the woodwork and actually generate considerable public sympathy for the candidates they attack.

I was in Massachusetts in 1986 when Tip O'Neill retired and Joe Kennedy ran for his seat. The outrage and sense of entitlement by his opponents - how dare a Kennedy run for this seat! - was, then as now, over the top. They were so mad that some top Massachusetts politicians ran against him in the Democratic Primary. Among them were Jim Roosevelt (now chair of the DNC rules committee), Mel King (the first African-American to place in a run-off for Boston mayor) and State Senator George Bachrach, a "check list progressive" popular among many activists. The Boston Globe cheer-led for Bachrach and even published a poll days before the election claiming he would beat Kennedy. When the votes came in, Kennedy crushed him by 20 percentage points and the other comers with him, and he then bested the Republican the general election.

Edward Moore Kennedy himself was the butt of many jokes at his expense when he first ran for senate. "If your name was Edward Moore," charged his rival, "your candidacy would be a joke."

All of this comes with the terrain, and none of it counts for anything toward persuading voters. A certain percentage will always grumble about Kennedys and their name, and a much larger sector of the public will always think it's a dumb argument against a candidate. There's little need to get too distracted by it. With lame arguments like that, hey're playing right into our hands.

What's really needed now for Kennedy supporters are some online organizing projects modeled after Obama: A Facebook page ("One Million Strong for Caroline Kennedy," anyone?), a DKos diarist to pen "This Week with Caroline Kennedy" once every seven days (in the tradition of Iceberg Slim), and a website for Kennedy supporters to gather, modeled after the One Million Strong website that was launched by Daily Kossacks that supported Obama in October of 2007 but whose candidate wasn't getting the love from its front-pagers.

I can't host any of that stuff here at The Field, first, because this site doesn't endorse candidates (although our personal opinions that do not speak for the site shine through at times) and, second, because I'm not that well organized to meet a deadline once a week or add another online project to my already full plate. But if others do it, I will come, donate writing, steer many readers to it, be of counsel in any ways asked, and participate as one among many.

If we get out in front of the Kennedy campaign and, Obama style, don't wait for orders from headquarters, we'll ensure that her campaign will be small donor based, and the rest will be a fun and wonderful history.

With Kennedy enjoying around 70 percent support in the Netroots, we don't have to do much persuading. What we need to do is organizing. I can think of no better way to carry on the best of the Obama campaign into 2009, and get a progressive and natural national leader into the US Senate as part of the bargain.

Now, there must be some colleagues out there looking for a new and positive way to make a difference. And you don't have to be from or in New York (lord knows, so many of Kennedy's opponents are not).

If you build it, I will come. And so will many, many more.

Update: You're already building it! This Facebook group now has 1,289 members supporting Kennedy for Senate (quite a few Field Hands apparently beat me to finding out about it). And this independent website - www.carolineforsenate.com - is generating letters of support to Governor Paterson. That's what I'm talkin' about.

 

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About Al Giordano

Biography

Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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