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Joseph A. Palermo

Joseph A. Palermo

Posted: December 18, 2008 02:08 PM

Caroline Kennedy Would Be an Outstanding Senator for New York


I've recently heard a lot of punditry questioning Caroline Kennedy's qualifications to fill Hillary Clinton's now empty seat in the United States Senate, fears that her ascendancy will lead to "dynastic" rule, and her perceived inability to win votes outside of Manhattan. But all of these concerns have little basis in reality.

First, Caroline Kennedy is qualified to serve in the Senate. Her public life where she has spent decades working in the fields of education and social reform has been rich and varied and has upheld the highest ideals and goals for social justice that were handed down to her by her extraordinary parents. If Rick Santorum and Saxby Chambliss are "qualified" to serve in the Senate, Caroline Kennedy is more than qualified.

Second, the hand-wringing about Caroline Kennedy going to the Senate moving the country closer to a dynasty is pure hogwash given the realities and costs of hanging on to a Senate seat in the state of New York. The Bush Family has nearly destroyed the nation. What "damage" could a Senator named Kennedy do to our republic at this late date? Moreover, having name recognition is a plus in a state where one might be forced to raise $70 million to win election to the Senate. The system by which we fund campaigns in this country is as broken as the financial system; that development is not Caroline Kennedy's fault.

Third, Caroline Kennedy will have no problem appealing to upstate New Yorkers. There are large, well-organized liberal communities throughout the state, including vibrant and active African-American populations in cities like Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Organized labor has been hit hard in recent years but unions are still a political force outside New York City. (And let's not forget the People's Republic of Ithaca.) Back in 1964, when Robert F. Kennedy ran for his first elective office (the same seat his niece is now seeking) he had no problem winning upstate voters. Like Caroline today, RFK's detractors denounced him as a Manhattan liberal who could never spark enthusiasm "out in the sticks." But he proved them all wrong. Lyndon Johnson's landslide election that year certainly boosted his numbers but RFK made solid showings upstate. Kennedy had the added disadvantages of being labeled a "carpet bagger" and he was running against a popular moderate incumbent Republican, Kenneth Keating (who was from upstate). Caroline Kennedy has neither of these stigmas.

The upstate dairy farmers and others involved in agricultural production listened to RFK's plans for the country when he traveled through rural New York and they generally liked his ideas for using the federal government to promote the sale of their food products. It was contested ground, but RFK campaigned hard upstate visiting dozens of tiny hamlets including Watertown where he was greeted with Barry Goldwater signs and a ten-year-old boy holding a placard reading: "Don't Use Me In Your Cynical Power Grab!" In Rochester, a scene of rioting in the black community the previous summer, RFK, against the advice of local Democratic pols, spoke of the economic divisions of race in America: "In the South," he said, "you can pass legislation to permit a Negro to have an ice cream cone at Howard Johnson's, but you can't pass legislation to automatically give a Negro an education. I believe the community must provide education so there can be jobs. You have to give Negroes some hope."

Caroline Kennedy came out early with a pivotal endorsement of Barack Obama when he needed it most. Now he is awaiting his inaugural as the nation's first African-American president. Caroline's uncle Bobby spoke about the possibility that since John F. Kennedy had broken the nation's barrier against electing a Catholic president there would be one day an African-American president. RFK also would be immensely gratified to see the nation's first African-American Attorney General, since he did so much to promote diversity inside the Justice Department and expand the Civil Rights Division when he was Attorney General. Caroline Kennedy has followed the tradition of public service handed down to her by her family and it is fitting for her to step forward at this historic moment to give President Barack Obama a strong advocate in the Senate. She will be a fine Senator and she can defend the seat in the upcoming elections that are guaranteed to be very nasty, and very, very expensive.