New York

Obama the Political Fixer Works New York’s Senate Primary

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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.”

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.

“A primary was a good thing for the party then, and it is a good
thing now,” says Cooper.

Cooper himself has a most interesting background: He has been
president and owner for 30 years of a 175-employee lighting-equipment
firm called Spectronics. It has been profitable enough to avoid
layoffs, even in the current downturn, he says, and is a union shop
with a strong contract with the electrical workers. Despite his
management role, he proclaims himself a labor stalwart. “I’ve
participated in job actions at Wal-Mart and walked picket lines,” he
says. “I also know how to grow jobs.”

He was elected to the county legislature in 1999 and to its
leadership four years ago. Among the bills he won were safety locks on
pistols and early bans on hand-held cell phones by drivers and,
following the death of a young constituent, the sale of products
containing the diet supplement, ephedra.

Then there is his solid home life. He has been with the same
partner, a man named Robert Cooper, for 29 years. In late April, they
were married in Connecticut. The pair have raised five adopted
children. The eldest, Daniel, 23, works alongside Cooper at his
company. The twin daughters, Jennifer and Kimberly, recently went with
Cooper on a tour of the White House, along with 140 members of their
eighth-grade class from Cold Spring Harbor Junior High School.

“It was the one campaign reward I asked for,” said Cooper, who
served on Obama’s fundraising panel, as well as on the candidate’s gay
and Jewish leadership committees.

“New York’s Democratic primary voters are smart and well-educated. I
think they want someone who votes their conscience, not someone who
just tacks to the wind.”

A White House call is not likely to dissuade him, he insisted. “As
persuasive as the president can be, which I know firsthand, I don’t
think that would be enough to keep me from opening an exploratory
committee. I think this is something that’s beneficial for the party.”
Which is what his friend Obama used to say as well.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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