Rep. Nita Lowey's Senate Bid on Standby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 1999; Page C1
All the action is taking place around her and in spite of her. She is what they call in the newspaper business "B-matter," relegated to the 12th paragraph of the main story. As in: "On the Democratic side, Rep. Nita Lowey of Westchester has said she probably will run if Mrs. Clinton does not."
Waiting for Hillary, it's called.
The network talk shows can't get enough of Lowey, but all they really want to talk about is whether Hillary will be New York's junior senator. They treat Lowey like a political analyst, asking her about Hillary's position on a Palestinian state. Whatever.
Like she's Mary Matalin or somebody.
Lowey's congressional colleagues -- indeed, Democrats everywhere -- are no better. They have worked their collective saliva into a mighty river of drool. Please run, Hillary, we're beggin' ya, please. They have guaranteed the first lady she won't have a dollop of primary opposition next year. What
about an actual home in the Apple? No problem. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y) says at least one good Democrat is offering a Park Avenue condo so the Arkansan who lives in Washington can establish residency in New York.
And what of Lowey, the Clinton administration loyalist who's represented parts of Westchester County, Queens and the Bronx for 10 years?
She's the "backup" candidate, says Rangel.
"If Hillary doesn't run and if Nita does, we will all rally around Nita," explains Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who quickly adds: "Obviously, Hillary is a more glamorous, well-known candidate. But that's the nature of politics."
In other words, Lowey is the community playhouse and Hillary Clinton is Broadway. Thanks, Jerry. But hey, Lowey knows how to go with the bit. On Capitol Hill the other day, as a meeting between the New York delegation and Gov. George Pataki was breaking up, Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano turned to Lowey.
"Hey, how come your picture is not on the cover of Time?"
To which Lowey replied: "I'm just the understudy."
Waiting for Hillary.
Not that waiting for Hillary is a sedentary sport.
Last week, Lowey spent 25 hours phoning prospective donors. She attended a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fund-raiser to make more donor contacts. A couple of weeks ago she met with potential big-money backers in Los Angeles. She had nearly $850,000 in her congressional campaign chest as of the first of the year. But to demonstrate political strength for a Senate race, her goal is to get to $1.6 million by June 30, which means raising roughly $133,000 a month. So far, say Lowey confidants, that target is being met.
Then there is the matter of moving around the state and building support among Democratic constituencies. Just in case. Last week, she addressed a Democratic club in Manhattan. The previous week she attended a dinner of black and Hispanic state legislators in Albany, spoke to AFL-CIO political directors in Miami Beach and keynoted a luncheon of Democratic activists in Buffalo. Last month she trekked to Syracuse and Newburgh and has upcoming trips to Watertown, Rochester and other areas of the state.
"I'm doing what I have to do to prepare," she says.
When Lowey came to visit the first lady at the White House residence last week, a meeting she asked for, the two greeted each other with kisses. "We've always had a very warm relationship," says Lowey, whose office photo collage displays four pictures of her and Mrs. Clinton together. "Sitting around the table talking to Hillary Clinton about an issue is like talking to a friend."
Except this meeting was not about public school construction or any number of other issues they both care about. This was about brass political calculations. Harold Ickes, who is advising Clinton in her exploration, was there. And he is advising her to take her time. Orange juice and cookies were served. The first lady thanked Lowey for her graciousness, said she had been splendid in her numerous TV appearances. She asked Lowey about the concerns of people in her district. Lowey updated her on how she was preparing for a Senate campaign, should the first lady opt out. The first lady made it clear she was pursuing the race seriously, but encouraged Lowey to move forward with her own considerations. And so on. They chatted for an hour and 15 minutes. The number one priority, they both agreed, was ensuring that Democrats keep the seat Pat Moynihan is vacating. They agreed to talk again soon.
"I have great respect and affection for congresswoman Nita Lowey and have worked with her over the years," says the first lady through her spokeswoman Marsha Berry. "She's a leader on issues affecting families, such as education. I have been in her district and know how well she has represented her constituents. I appreciate greatly her understanding of my need to consider carefully the possibility of a Senate race in New York."
But when will she decide?
The short answer: no time soon. Lowey's people say they are not expecting the first lady's decision before June. The problem is that Lowey has publicly said she will make a decision herself in early spring. And yet she is emphatic that there are no circumstances under which she will run if Hillary runs.
"So we'll have to be in touch and hopefully our schedules will coincide," says Lowey.
What if they don't?
"I think it's too early to face that. I respect her decision-making process. I think she needs the time. It's a major decision in her life."
She is being so generous. But it's certainly an awkward process.
"Every day that goes by, Hillary Clinton is making it harder for any other Democrat to raise money," says Maurice Carroll, director of the polling institute at Connecticut's Quinnipiac College, which has been conducting early surveys on the race. "If it goes on and on, that cheapens the nomination. It doesn't mean the next person can't win, but it makes that person look like second choice, damaged goods."
If that next person is Lowey, she has a huge hill to climb. Recent polling by Carroll's institute shows that only 14 percent of voters said they were very likely or somewhat likely to vote for Lowey if she were the Democrats' Senate candidate; 63 percent said they haven't heard enough to make a judgment.
"It means nobody knows who the hell she is," explains Carroll.
Charles Schumer, New York's newly elected Democratic senator, was in a similar bind when he began his '98 campaign from a comfortable seat in the House. He had low statewide name recognition and a celebrity Democratic primary opponent in Geraldine Ferraro.
"As long as Nita's getting around the state, she's not hurt," says Schumer. "She won't be the understudy anymore if Hillary decides not to run."
And if Hillary decides not to run, says former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who knows both women well, "The first person to do a fund-raiser for Nita Lowey, I predict at this very minute, will be Hillary Clinton."
"Sure, there might be an immediate letdown," says Rep. Serrano, "but then you move back to the mode of winning back Congress and keeping the White House, and you build excitement all over again.
"I don't know if the discussion would be at this level if Hillary were not a factor. And I'm one of those people asking Hillary to run. Even though people are ignoring Nita right now, they're still aware that she's there."
Studying the Understudy
Lowey, a former PTA president, goes about her rounds in the House with a kind of girlish energy. She is 61, with four grandchildren. On one recent day, she left a TV studio and openly fretted about her makeup. She bumped into a young aide returning from the cafeteria with a roll and a drink disguised as a meal. "Is that all you're having for lunch?" she admonished.
When she passes her colleagues in the halls or down in the Capitol's subway, they offer new greetings.
Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.): "Senator, how are you doing?"
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.): "Hey, senator."
It's a collegial courtesy. And it feels good.
Certainly, Lowey must be tired of all the draft-Hillary hubbub.
"No, not really. . . . If she runs, she will be enthusiastically supported by New Yorkers. And if I run, I have a solid record of accomplishment."
But so far there is not much talk about who Lowey is. She has been a champion of increased funding for breast cancer research (her mother died from the disease in 1981), fought for tougher drunk-driving laws, is a former chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues and is perhaps the most prominent abortion rights advocate in Congress.
She straddles the ground between traditional Democratic liberalism and more centrist politics, leaning left most of the time. She did support the Clinton administration's welfare reform plan and backed NAFTA, even though nearly half of her political action committee donations were from labor interests. During the 1994 dog days of the administration, Lowey was a regular TV defender of the Clintons, who were getting plastered over Whitewater and the health care reform disaster.
And now, she can't get heard at all. Unless she's talking about Hillary.
"Well, the fact that Hillary is the first lady and is in a class by herself causes the media to focus on her exclusively, and it is a fascinating story," Lowey says. "So I guess it's just the facts of life. And frankly, it gives me more time to explore."
This is something Rep. Rick Lazio understands. Lazio (R-N.Y.) is in a similar predicament. He is considering running for the Republican Senate nomination, but all the media buzz is about how it's New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's to lose. If he wants it. Everyone expects a Giuliani-Clinton matchup. That's the hype. As if no other prospects matter.
"Actually, it's less frustrating than many might imagine," says Lazio. "Being out of the bright lights gives you the freedom and time to move around and ask questions and listen to people and not feel the need to give knee-jerk answers. You have time to think through issues."
Which is exactly what Lowey is trying to do.
To get to Congress in the first place, she had to defeat two-term incumbent Republican Rep. Joseph DioGuardi in 1988. He referred to her as "Bella Abzug without the hat." She knows something about long odds.
"No one thought I had a prayer," Lowey recalls.
She acknowledges that the longer Hillary Clinton waits, the tougher the road ahead. "Sure, sure," says Lowey. "But I feel confident if Mrs. Clinton doesn't run, she will do whatever she can to help me in any way."
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