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Kennedy Endures Rough Start in Bid for Senate Seat

Caroline Kennedy, praised for her work in the New York City school system, talks with City Hall Academy students.
Caroline Kennedy, praised for her work in the New York City school system, talks with City Hall Academy students. (2004 Photo By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

NEW YORK -- Caroline Kennedy, who is seeking appointment to New York's soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat, is facing sharp criticism from rivals, intense scrutiny from the media and disparagement over everything from refusing to disclose her finances to not voting in some past elections.

In the second week of a public introduction that even some supporters say has not gone smoothly, Kennedy is also facing resistance from some Democrats over the support of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), one of her highest-profile backers.

Bloomberg has said he is not endorsing Kennedy, and the decision is up to Gov. David A. Paterson (D), who alone has the power to make the appointment to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate seat. But Bloomberg and Kennedy worked together on school reform issues in the city, and he offered strong praise for her in the face of some of the criticism.

"I happen to have worked with her," Bloomberg said Monday. "She has worked in the New York City school system. She is intelligent, competent, knows as much about the issues, I think, as most people that run for senator or have been our senators in the past."

In addition to words of praise, Bloomberg's top political aide, Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, has been actively lobbying top union leaders and others to support Kennedy's bid. "The Bloomberg operation is behind this big," said Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. "He's the capo di tutti capi" -- boss of bosses. "He's using his influence to perhaps have someone in the U.S. Senate who he supports."

Bloomberg, a billionaire who ran for mayor as a Republican before switching to independent, has used his personal fortune to help fund Republican candidates in state elections, making him disliked in New York's Democratic circles. Also, many Democrats said the mayor's heavy-handed tactics to push the City Council to overturn its term limits law -- to allow Bloomberg to run for a third term next year -- left many bruised feelings.

Thus, they said Kennedy's bid for the Senate could suffer if she is seen as too close to the mayor and if Bloomberg's aides use the same high-pressure tactics to garner support for her that were used to overturn term limits.

"It's pretty obvious the mayor's fingerprints are all over it," said John C. Liu, a City Council member who has clashed with Bloomberg. "The term limits fight doesn't necessarily help Caroline. The way in which this campaign is being waged, for a lot of people on the ground it smells like the campaign on term limits."

Because Bloomberg and Kennedy are both wealthy residents of Manhattan's Upper East Side, Liu said, "there's a pervasive sentiment that it's only about the rich and the famous."

Liu said he was conflicted, because he considers Kennedy a sister, although he met her just recently; Liu was named John after her father, the assassinated president, and Liu's two brothers are named Robert and Edward after two of her uncles.

"It's a mixed blessing, the mayor's support," said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which is nonpartisan and is not endorsing any candidate. "He's very unpopular with the political class." He added that Bloomberg's "help may not be as good as chicken soup."

Kennedy appeared to stumble in her initial answers to written questions from reporters, when she declined to say whether she supported Bloomberg's third-term bid. As a Democratic senator, she ordinarily would be expected to say she would back the Democrat.


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