Caroline Kennedy publicly expressed her desire to be New York's next senator for the first time Wednesday and launched a tour of upstate cities to meet with politicians and power brokers as she began her quest for the seat being vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, met Wednesday morning with Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll after meeting a group of private citizens including John F.X. Mannion, an upstate Democratic party power broker. As she left Syracuse City Hall, she made a brief statement to a group of reporters.
"I just wanted to say, as some of you may have heard, I would be honored to be considered for the position of U.S. senator," Kennedy said. "I wanted to come upstate to meet Mayor Driscoll and others to tell them about my experience and also learn how Washington can help upstate New York."
Kennedy took note of the crowded field of elected officials who have been named as possible Clinton successors.
"There are lot of good candidates the governor is considering and he's laid out a process and I'm proud to be in that process," she said.
She took no questions and then headed for Rochester. She was also expected to visit Buffalo.
The outreach is similar to Clinton's "listening tour" in 1999 and 2000 when she first ran for the Senate. Like Clinton, Kennedy faces criticism because she's never been elected to public office. Some also worry she'll favor New York City interests over those of upstaters.
Kennedy, 51, is the highest profile name in the race to take the seat once held by her uncle, the late Robert F. Kennedy, should Clinton be confirmed as President-elect Barack Obama's secretary of state. New York Gov. David Paterson will decide who gets the job. The new senator will have to run in 2010 to fill the last two years of Clinton's term and then run for a full-term in 2012.
Kennedy's willingness to embrace the very public life of a U.S. senator surprised some after a lifetime of carefully cultivated privacy. But she told a private group in Syracuse that the idea to run didn't just pop into her head when Obama tapped Clinton.
"She said she had been thinking about this for a while, previous to this vacancy coming open," said Syracuse City Councilor Stephanie Miner, who was at the meeting. "She said she is at time in her life where holding public office is something she can do."
Miner said Kennedy met with about 10 people from a cross-section of the community including health care, education, business and labor. The group included some skeptics and devoted Clinton supporters, Miner said.
"New York has a history of having celebrity senators and the question is can somebody use that celebrity, as Sen. Clinton did, to become a solid advocate for upstate New York specifically and New York in general," Miner said. "Senator Clinton did that and Sen. Moynihan did that and, I think arguably, Caroline's uncle Bobby did that as well."
"I think what's she's trying to do is to show to people she's more than a celebrity," Miner said.
Kennedy told the group that Paterson had advised her to talk to a lot of New Yorkers but her approach didn't come across like a lobbying effort.
"It was not a hard sell at all. 'It was, 'This is who I am. Ask me questions,"' Miner said. "She knows she's going to have to work twice as hard as anyone else because she comes into it with that notoriety."
A Siena College poll released Wednesday found New York voters are divided over who should fill the seat and approval ratings for Kennedy and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo are nearly identical. More New Yorkers believe Paterson will choose Kennedy, by a 31-16 percent margin. Thirty-eight percent said they didn't know or refused to answer and 16 percent felt Paterson would pick someone else.
"New York is not uncomfortable with celebrities," said Steven Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena poll, noting Robert F. Kennedy, UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Clinton, who was a sitting first lady when she ran, held the same seat.
"New Yorkers like people who can go to Washington, walk into the Senate chamber and represent New York and deliver for New Yorkers," he said.
The telephone survey of 622 registered voters last week had a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.
Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan said Kennedy called him Tuesday night to say she'd be touring upstate, including Buffalo, the second-biggest city in New York and a Democratic power base upstate.
"She just said she's looking forward to talking," Lenihan said. "She said she's just coming in, sort of a quick (visit)."
Lenihan said the party has been supporting U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo "being an upstater, for geographical balance.
"However, we will support who the governor appoints and certainly we would have no problem supporting her at all," Lenihan said. "I think she's very substantive, working on a whole range of issues. Obviously she's a person of stature and influence and I think she could do a lot for New York."
This program aired on December 17, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.