David Paterson and Kirsten Gillibrand: New Senator, New Scandal


How wonderful that David Paterson has rescued us from having those grasping Kennedys snatch the state’s open Senate seat. The family only has the greatest liberal blood in the country pulsing through its veins. Its collective dedication to public service famously claimed two lives. Through the darkest years of Reagan and the Bushes, Ted Kennedy kept hope alive on the Senate floor for decent laws that might offer affordable health care, fairness to workers, and education for the poor. The family’s scandals, and there are a few, were always of the heart and the flesh.

Now Teddy Kennedy is failing and his niece had this mid-life notion that, having helped an inspiring new president win election, she might be able to pick up the family mantle and make her own contribution. Maybe she was up to it; maybe she wasn’t. But the plan dimmed when the media people decided she spoke with too many “ums” and “ers” and “you knows” to be trusted to represent New York. Did you ever hear reporters talk? It is why we only write things down. Most of us can’t be trusted to intelligibly order a pizza.

The other hitch in Caroline Kennedy’s plans came when she picked up a Fatal Attraction–type admirer in the person of City Hall’s resident billionaire. Michael Bloomberg never had the courage to make his own presidential endorsement (privately, he told people he liked McCain best; oh, yes, he did). Suddenly, here was Kennedy, his golden pass straight into the Obama White House. He saddled her with his own political hired guns, who promptly ran her dream right into the ground.

We’ll only know the truth of the last sad chapter of Caroline Kennedy’s failed Senate bid if she decides to tell us, which isn’t likely. She has too much class to talk about such things. Unfortunately, nothing that the governor or his people say about the entire affair is to be believed. They lied all Wednesday night when the rumors about Kennedy’s exit from the race first surfaced. Then they lied some more on Thursday. It was a nanny problem, they said. Taxes. A bad marriage. This from a politician who confessed to affairs with women on the state payroll. Kennedy’s people fired back and, at day’s end, Paterson sued for peace, admitting there had been no such last-minute surprises about her candidacy.

Then, on Friday, the governor stood before the press, surrounded by a gaggle of politicians, to introduce his own brilliant choice. He’d had two months to decide, but it took him until 2 that morning to make up his mind. And here she was, a 42-year-old Reese Witherspoon knockoff, legally blonde, all giggles and tee-hees, boasting an Ivy League education. She’s put her Dartmouth schooling to such good use that she holds a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association and a four-square stance in favor of the death penalty.

Kirsten Gillibrand has all of two years in elective office. Like Kennedy, she also hails from Democratic royalty. In her case, it’s the Albany branch, where self-service precedes public service. Her father is a veteran political fixer and lobbyist. His connections stem from his fabulous mother-in-law, Polly Noonan, longtime “confidante” and presumed mistress to one of the most corrupt mayors in state history. Erastus Corning 2nd ruled Albany for more than 40 years, most of the time enhancing his family’s fortunes while dodging grand juries. In 1972, when the state investigation commission looked at how graft and cost-plus contracts had inflated city expenses hundreds of times over, it called Corning’s Albany “the worst-run county in America.”

“Rastus” Corning loved Douglas Rutnik, Gillibrand’s dad, so much that when the mayor died in 1983, he left him a politician’s most sentimental and precious assets: his insurance company and his shotgun. “There’s no question I was like a substitute son for him,” Rutnik told Paul Grondahl, Corning’s biographer. The shotgun was from the hours the two spent together shooting small birds. The insurance firm was the result of a lifetime of favor collection: Its clients included all the saloon owners, contractors, and manufacturers who understood that the way to thrive in Albany was to buy your coverage from Corning. When Corning helped Nelson Rockefeller build the capitol’s vast South Mall, every tradesman made sure the mayor’s firm wrote his insurance. Corning’s own wife and children were so outraged when he left the company to Rutnik and the Noonans that they sued to win it back. They lost.

The substitute son embraced the surrogate father’s lessons: His law firm became the faithful instrument of the city’s political leaders, rising to the occasion for electoral challenges, foreclosures, and any needed influence-peddling. Democrat or Republican, he did not discriminate. He grew close to the GOP’s rising star, Alfonse D’Amato, and even closer to D’Amato’s tough-talking aide, Zenia Mucha. After D’Amato successfully steered George Pataki into the governor’s mansion, Mucha went along as part of the deal. She and Rutnik bought a lovely home together in Colonie, the Albany suburb.

His lobbying clients quickly prospered: Defense giant Lockheed Martin won a $50 million state contract, and another $95 million deal from the MTA. Morgan Stanley paid $10,000 a month for his wisdom on state bond sales. Altria—née Philip Morris—kept him on a $100,000-a-year retainer to help ward off curbs on its cancer-spawning business.

At her introduction by the governor on Friday, Gillibrand praised her grandmother as her inspiration. But her first real lessons came as a summer intern in D’Amato’s old Senate office, where, for a dozen years, he ran the finest school in tiptoeing around prosecutors and scandal. D’Amato shamelessly stood front and center at Paterson’s press conference. The governor had no problem with this. Before the session started, an aide was overheard saying they needed to get Malcolm Smith, the Democrats’ new Senate majority leader, into the camera frame. But no one dared dislodge D’Amato, who recently threw a fundraiser for Paterson so that his own lobbying clients could show the accidental governor their love.

Midway through the 90-minute event, BlackBerrys buzzed with news that Joe Bruno, Smith’s Republican predecessor as Senate leader, had been indicted on federal charges. For years, Bruno ruled as one of the state’s most powerful figures, all the while keeping his business affairs as murky as possible, including the real estate deal he held with Gillibrand’s father. The indictments charge Bruno with secretly pocketing $3.2 million from clients seeking his legislative favor.

Bruno quickly rushed before the cameras to thunder that he’d broken no law. Everything was by the book, he said. He didn’t bother denying the secret fortune he’d amassed from those who hired him. The clearest thought on this dismal affair came later that afternoon from Susan Lerner, exasperated leader of the good government group Common Cause. “The only meaningful ethics and corruption oversight in New York State,” she said, “is being carried out by federal agents and United States Attorneys.”

Even for Albany, it was a stunning day. Enough misbehavior was packed into a single 24-hour time frame to provide Albany’s great author, William (no relation) Kennedy, with the stuff of an entire book. In Roscoe, his novel based on Corning and his henchmen, Kennedy offered this musing from a rascal lucky enough to win state political office: “This is a great job for a man with misguided ambition.” It could be the motto over the Capitol steps.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 28, 2009

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