Obama the Political Fixer Works New York's Senate Primary

The president gets a hand in the back room

Barack Obama reached out from the White House this month and put his hand firmly on the Democratic Party scales here in New York. He pressed down hard. This sent the non-elected current junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, soaring high above the crowd.

She could be seen waving gleefully from high above, wearing her best Tracy Flick smile, batting her eyes at the president who had so hoisted her fortunes. Sprawled on the ground below, dazed and confused, lay several politicians who had dared to think about running in a primary against Gillibrand before Obama brushed them aside.

Watching this scene and chortling with delight was New York's senior senator, Charles Schumer, who is apparently pleased to have a junior colleague like Gillibrand of such meager gifts and talent working alongside him. His thought balloon was this: "When I say there will be no primary, there will be no primary."

Senior and junior: Schumer and Gillibrand
Associated Press
Senior and junior: Schumer and Gillibrand

Gillibrand now holds a seat in the United States Senate—the same one once held by Robert Kennedy, Patrick Moynihan, and Hillary Clinton—thanks to her unanimous win in a single-vote election. The sole vote came from a governor who was also never elected to his own current post and who is unlikely to hold onto his own job should he face the voters next year. Until winning an upstate congressional seat just three years ago, Gillibrand's résumé mainly consisted of this: lawyer for Big Tobacco. Her Senate appointment owed more to demographics and connections than ability and performance. She arrived at the governor's announcement with Schumer holding her on one side, and her father's pal and fellow lobbyist, Alfonse D'Amato, on the other.

Prior to Obama's intervention, at least five veteran public officials were actively considering running against Gillibrand. Most, like Long Island congressman Steve Israel, who got the warning message directly from the White House, thought they could present themselves to voters in a state primary as a viable alternative to Gillibrand on several issues that Obama himself championed in his own race: gun safety, fairness to immigrants, the economy. That was the plan, that is, until the president told them not to bother.

Apparently, this is the flip side of the leader from the Land of Lincoln, who has otherwise managed so many wonderful things since his inauguration. His heavy-handed politicking is a surprise only to those of us who know him solely from his inspiring campaign. It is old news to those in Chicago who watched Obama's steady rise. I admit to warnings received from Windy City friends who said Obama had taken lessons in kneecapping from his ward-heeler pals in City Hall and the state legislature. This complaint sounded like a petty gripe resulting from a family squabble. Even if true, it was a tiny blemish on a magnificent canvas. This notion held right up until the moment when the White House invoked Chicago rules—one of ours to the hospital, one of yours to the morgue—on any Democrat seeking to challenge Gillibrand.

The political logic behind Obama's vote-rigging is that it is for the greater good of the party. This analysis comes from Schumer, who wears many battle ribbons from having guided his party into a Senate majority. The argument goes like this: If Gillibrand gets a tough primary, it will only eat up money that is needed elsewhere to shore up Democratic seats; the winner of New York's primary will enter the general election broke, exhausted, and up against a fresh and well-funded Republican opponent.

The trouble with this thinking, as Obama should have immediately shot back, is that it is exactly what he heard from those seeking to keep him from running against Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nomination belonged to her and her alone, they argued. His bid was hopeless, divisive, and destructive.

His counter-argument then was that the party was strong enough to survive a well-fought race; that voters needed to hear a different voice, especially on the issue that had so divided the country, the Iraq War. He was more right than even he knew at the time.

This month, as Obama sought to squelch opposition to the unelected Gillibrand, the person quickest to draw this analogy was Jonathan Tasini, the labor advocate who made his own lonely challenge to Clinton when she was still a pro-war Senate incumbent in 2006. "Had the party leadership sought to 'clear the field' in 2008 and control a vigorous debate about the direction of our party and our country," said Tasini, "Barack Obama would not be president today."

Tasini may now end up waging one more lopsided campaign against a Democratic presumptive nominee. "There is anger out there about economic issues that Gillibrand is just not going to be a leader on. Those need to be addressed," he said last week. "The most important thing here is that this is about democracy."

Out in Suffolk County, another long-shot hopeful has also planted a flag in the race and is criticizing Gillibrand's record on guns and immigration, despite the White House threats. Jon Cooper, 54, happens to know Obama better than most. The majority leader of the Suffolk County legislature, Cooper was one of Obama's earliest endorsers in the state. At an Obama rally in the summer of 2007 at the 1199 health care workers' union hall on West 43rd Street, Cooper's was the lone white face on the stage behind the candidate. New York's politicians and media were so overwhelmingly pro-Clinton at the time that Obama's two massive rallies that day barely merited a line in the press.

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