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As a candidate, Kennedy is forceful but elusive

Caroline Kennedy, the woman who would be New York’s next senator,  seems less like a candidate than an idea of one: forceful but vague and largely undefined.
Caroline Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy responds during an interview on Friday. Stephen Chernin / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

Caroline Kennedy, the woman who would be New York’s next senator, is sure of one thing. Among all the hopefuls seeking to succeed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, she said on Saturday, there is no better choice.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I would be the best,” Ms. Kennedy said, sitting in the back room of an Upper East Side diner around the corner from her home.

After weeks of criticism that she had not opened up to the public or the press, Ms. Kennedy has embarked on a series of interviews. But in an extensive sit-down discussion Saturday morning with The New York Times, she still seemed less like a candidate than an idea of one: forceful but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way.

Facing a somewhat delicate task, where she is not running for office but seeking an appointment to an impending vacancy, Ms. Kennedy avoided questions about the other possible contenders, saying she did not want to criticize them. She praised Mrs. Clinton, but said it was too soon to say how she could improve on Mrs. Clinton’s performance as a senator. She said she had been personally affected by the economic crisis but sidestepped questions about her wealth, declining to say how much money she lived on each year.

She provided only the broadest of rationales for her candidacy for the Senate, saying her experience as a mother, author and school fund-raiser, her commitment to public service and her deep political connections had prepared her for the job.

Ms. Kennedy, 51, has had only a few weeks to think through a platform and a message, and she has already taken positions on issues like same-sex marriage, which she supports, and school vouchers, which she opposes. She spoke knowledgeably about education issues and said that, if appointed, she hoped to be particularly involved in the debate over the reauthorization of the federal legislation known as No Child Left Behind, of which her uncle Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was a lead author.

But in the interview on Saturday, she said she hoped to be a consensus-builder, and declined to describe her positions on other pressing public issues — even in education, where she has some expertise. Ms. Kennedy would not say, for example, whether she supported proposals to abolish tenure for teachers and offer them merit pay instead.

“To pick out the most controversial one as a stand-alone thing, I don’t think that’s really the way to go about this,” Ms. Kennedy said. “People can vote; it’ll be really interesting to see what happens. There’s a lot of experimentation going on in the country that we should pay attention to.”

Years avoiding spotlight
The interview underscored the aura of mystery that still surrounds Ms. Kennedy nearly a month after she told Gov. David A. Paterson that she was interested in filling Mrs. Clinton’s seat.

New Yorkers appear to have a favorable view of Ms. Kennedy and fond memories of her family. But they know little about her positions or what has driven her to seek office after years spent mostly avoiding the spotlight.

With several weeks to go before Mr. Paterson makes his decision, she is doling out glimpses of her political beliefs and private life. But when asked Saturday morning to describe the moment she decided to seek the Senate seat, Ms. Kennedy seemed irritated by the question and said she couldn’t recall.

“Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?” she asked the reporters. “I thought you were the crack political team.”

On an appearance Friday night on NY1, Ms. Kennedy was more lighthearted, and also more personal. She talked about her family’s political legacy, about how much she missed her brother, and about how much her mother had loved campaigning.

But on Saturday morning, Ms. Kennedy was all business and seemed in a more lawyerly frame of mind. At one point, she said that it might have been preferable to seek the seat in an election, noting that “it would give me a chance to explain exactly what I’m doing, why I would want to do this, and, you know, to get people to know me better and to understand exactly what my plans would be, how hard I would work.”

But she would not say whether she thought Mr. Paterson should appoint a caretaker candidate to fill out Mrs. Clinton’s term, which would allow Ms. Kennedy and others interested in the seat an equal and unfettered chance to campaign for it in 2010.

“This is the opportunity that’s presenting itself right now, and I’m interested if the governor thinks that I could do a good job and help New York and help him,” Ms. Kennedy said.

Ms. Kennedy said she had spoken “throughout this process” with Andrew M. Cuomo, the attorney general, who is a contender for the job himself and is divorced from Ms. Kennedy’s cousin Kerry Kennedy. There are at least a half dozen other serious contenders for the job, including Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau County executive, and Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney and Kirsten E. Gillibrand.

“I’m not a conventional choice,” Ms. Kennedy said. “I haven’t followed the traditional path, but I do think I’d bring a kind of a lifetime of experience that is relevant to this job.”

One of the main assets she could bring to the Senate, Ms. Kennedy suggested, was her celebrity itself. It would be useful, she said, in bringing attention to New York’s needs and fighting for a bigger share of federal stimulus money.

“We are losing a very visible, very strong, very powerful advocate in Hillary Clinton,” Ms. Kennedy said. “This is not about me, this is about what I can do to help New York get its fair share, help working families, travel the state, bring attention to what is going on up there. So that’s why I think I would be good.”

Ms. Kennedy said she was very close to Senator Kennedy, and was inspired by his example, but felt no family duty to follow in her uncle’s footsteps.

Asked how much of a role her husband, Edwin A. Schlossberg, might take in her political career — on the hustings in Watertown, N.Y., say, or other political way stations in the north country — she hinted that he might be busy elsewhere, given his own career as the head of a prominent design firm. But she said no one could have a more supportive husband.

“The more time I spend with him, the happier I am,” she said.

Downplays privilege
Ms. Kennedy said she had spent some time in the Catskills and the Adirondacks; when asked her favorite place in the state outside of the city and Long Island, she said, “I like visiting historical sites. I loved visiting the battlefields of Saratoga.”

Ms. Kennedy said her finances had been affected by the economic crisis, though “not as badly as a lot of people’s. I’m lucky that I’m not afraid of losing my home, and my husband still has a job.”

But she declined to discuss details. “If I’m chosen for this I’m going to comply with every kind of disclosure; if the governor has questions about my finances, I’ll talk to him.”

She said she employed one household worker as well as a personal assistant — though she said she had far more experience managing people at the Department of Education. “Building a staff is something that I would have no trouble doing,” she said.

And she said she would have no trouble relating to New Yorkers of more modest means. “I have lived a very advantaged life, and I am very fortunate,” she said. “But our family tradition has been always to work for, as I said, for working people.”

Though Ms. Kennedy’s own children have attended private schools, she said her experience working with city schools had given her ample understanding of what students and their parents are facing.

“Many of those families are headed by women who are poor, and the kids are poor,” she said. “So I think that I’ve seen firsthand, and extensively across the city, the need that there is, the disadvantage that those kids are at when they enter school without the kind of support that kids from more fortunate backgrounds have, and the long-term impact of that on our city.”

Asked to name an issue on which she would depart from Democratic Party orthodoxy, Ms. Kennedy seemed to have trouble identifying one.

“If we’re not comparing it to anybody specifically, it’s hard to say where I disagree,” she said.

But when asked how she might differ with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg or with Governor Paterson, who has sole authority to make the Senate appointment, she demurred.

“I’m not going to talk about my disagreements with him,” she said. “You’ll find out over time.”

Indeed, Ms. Kennedy, like Barack Obama, the presidential candidate she endorsed, returned repeatedly to the idea of bipartisanship and unity.

“What I think people are really looking for is for people to work together,” she said finally. “It’s something that I take really seriously. We need Republicans and Democrats, all Democrats — people need to look at what we have in common.

“Health care is a perfect example,” she added. “All the stakeholders are at the table. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had different plans, but I think the goal now is to get quality affordable health care. The point now is to find something that’s going to work, to reduce costs and get more people covered. Now is the time for people to come together and focus on compromise. I think that’s one of the things I have going for me.”

Ms. Kennedy came to the interview with two aides, who had reserved the back room of the Lenox Hill Diner, on Lexington Avenue near 78th Street, for several interviews scheduled on Saturday.

As things wrapped up, a reporter tried to pose another question, but she interrupted him.

“I think we’re done,” she said.

This story, As a Candidate, Kennedy Is Forceful but Remains Elusive, originally appeared in the New York Times.