The Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and Caroline Kennedy have lunch at famed soul food restaurant Sylvia's in Harlem, New York, Thursday Dec. 18, 2008. The late President John F. Kennedy's daughter acknowledged Wednesday that she is seeking to be appointed to the U.S. Senate seat held by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to be secretary of state.
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Caroline Kennedy responds during an interview, Friday, Dec. 26, 2008 in New York. Kennedy's name first surfaced as a possible replacement for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in early December after President-elect Barack Obama nominated Clinton to be secretary of state. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
December 28, 2008
Following is a transcript of an interview with Caroline Kennedy conducted by Nicholas Confessore and David M. Halbfinger of The New York Times.
DH: Thank you for doing this.
CK: Thank you. (Laughs)
DH: Yeah, sure. I think we want to try and avoid questions you’ve already answered before and just get to the ones that would be somewhat newsworthy.
NC: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the other candidates who are interested in this job. Andrew Cuomo: he’s been attorney general, he’s been a cabinet secretary, he’s been a close adviser to a governor. He has an extensive record and knows upstate like the back of his hand. Tell me why the governor should pick you over Andrew Cuomo.
CK: I’m, you know, actually, Andrew Cuomo is someone I’ve known for many, many years and we’ve talked, you know, throughout this process, so, you know, we have a really good relationship and I admire the work he’s doing now and what he’s done, so I’m not really going to kind of criticize any of these other candidates, because I think there are a lot of people with great experience, and, you know, any one of which the governor could easily pick and they’d do a good job.
NC: I’m not asking you to criticize; I’m saying, why should he pick you over any of these other ones, what makes you the best candidate?
CK: Well, it obviously depends what the governor is looking for. I can tell you what I think I’d bring to this, which is, you know, I’m not a conventional choice, I haven’t followed the traditional path, but I do think I’d bring a kind of a lifetime of experience that is relevant to this job. I think that what we’ve seen over the last year, and particularly and even up to the last — is that there’s a lot of different ways that people are coming to public life now, and it’s not only the traditional path. Even in the New York delegation, you know, some of our great senators — Hillary Clinton, Pat Moynihan — came from, you know, other walks of life. We’ve got Carolyn McCarthy, John Hall, both of them have an unconventional background, so I don’t think that that is, uh — so I think in many ways, you know, we want to have all kinds of different voices, you know, representing us, and I think what I bring to it is, you know, my experience as a mother, as a woman, as a lawyer, you know, I’ve been an education activist for the last six years here, and, you know, I’ve written seven books — two on the Constitution, two on American politics. So obviously, you know, we have different strengths and weaknesses. And I think I also bring kind of a lifetime commitment to public service, a knowledge of these issues, and I’ve spent a lot of time encouraging people, and younger people, to go into public service, through a lot of the, you know, nonprofit work I’ve done. So I think it’s a whole, it’s different, it’s completely different, and it really is up to the governor to decide who would do the best job. But in terms of a family commitment —
NC: But do you think, in your own view, those things would make you a better pick for this job than other candidates?
CK: I think they would make me a really good pick for this job, and, um, it’s up to the governor to decide, you know, who would be the best. Really. And I think there are many ways to serve, and I’ve loved what I’ve done so far, and I plan to continue, I think, you know, serving and advocating for the issues that I think are important. So, if it’s this, that would be wonderful, because I really do think that the relationships that I have in Washington — you know, I worked hard on the Obama campaign, I have a good relationship with many of the people that are coming in to the administration, in the Senate, others, both sides of the aisle, you know, that’s the kind of work that I’ve done outside of politics. It hasn’t been sort of a partisan kind of career that I’ve had. So I think that at this point in time, that’s what people are looking for.
DH: Do you think you would be the best for the job of the people who are out there?
CK: Well, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I would be the best. (Laughter) Do you think you’re the best for your job? I assume you do. Uh, yeah.
DH: OK. I just want to be clear, because you seem to be saying it’s up to the governor to decide —
CK: Well, it is up to the governor to decide, and it is up to the governor to decide what’s best for New York. You know, I think that I could advocate for New York, I think that we are losing a very visible, very strong, very powerful advocate in Hillary Clinton, and I think it’s to New York’s advantage to have somebody who can, you know, bring attention to New York, you know, bring four people from The New York Times here to the coffee shop (laughter) and really put that to work for average people. This is not, you know, about me, it’s about what I can do to, you know, help New York get its fair share, help working families, travel the state, bring attention to what is going on up there. So that’s why I think I would be good.
DH: Is it the path that you’ve been on that distinguishes you? Is it your skills and talents?
CK: Well, it’s a combination that makes me who I am. Each one of us is a unique person. I may, and I think I represent a tradition that means a lot to me, which has really always been about fighting for others, for middle-class families, for working class — for working people, you know, and that’s a tradition and a commitment that I take very seriously.
NC: Hillary Clinton was considered to be a very effective senator, obviously, even though she came in without much experience in a legislature. Is there any aspect of her performance, her representation, that you think you could improve on if you became a senator?
CK: Well, I think she spent a lot of time traveling around the state and really working to represent all the people of the state, and that’s the kind of commitment I would make, so I think she did a great job, so I would love to continue in that tradition.
NC: You think you can improve on it somehow?
CK: Well once I — when I get in there, then I can really tell you exactly how I would improve on it. But as I said, I think she did a phenomenal job.
DH: Why is it that you apparently did not give Senator Clinton any kind of advance warning that you’d be coming out for Senator Obama?
CK: Um, I’m not going to talk about that particular process, but —
DH: Why’s that?
CK: Because those conversations that I have had and had during that time are not something that I think is relevant right now.
NC: How come it isn’t relevant? It kind of goes to your relationship with the person that you’re trying to succeed in the Senate.
CK: I think this is about the future, and, um, you know, that’s what I want to talk about, which is, what’s going on in our state, you know, why I would be the best person to help deliver for New York. We’re facing, you know, an economic crisis, the paper this morning said there’s, you know, five billion dollars of construction projects which just stopped, you know, that’s, you know — conversations a year ago, that’s — beside that, I don’t, as I said, I have conversations with a lot of people, and those are confidential.
NC: You said that you would run — and this earned you, I think, some applause from Democrats who were skeptical before, but you said you would support in 2010, whoever the governor appoints, but it occurred to me to wonder why: Why not run if you want this job? If you were sincere about this job, why not run in 2010 regardless of what happens in the next two months?
CK: Well, you know, I’m a Democrat, a loyal Democrat, I would support whoever the governor appoints, and as I said, I think there are many ways to serve and advance the issues that I care about, and I have a long time to do that, so I plan, in 2010, to support the Democrat.
NC: It just seems like the only — your interest in this seat coincided with the chance to become appointed to it, which is the easy way into the seat, and so it raises questions. If you really want it —
CK: Actually, I think that actually a campaign would be an easier way, because I think it would give me a chance to explain exactly what I’m doing, why I would want to do this, and, you know, and get people to know me better and to understand exactly what my plans would be, how hard I would work, you know, kind of...
NC: That’s very interesting. Do you think it would be better for you, and for your purposes in public life, if the governor did appoint a quote-unquote “caretaker” and then just said, everybody can run, and that way you would sidestep a lot of these questions about the appointment, and whether it’s appropriate to appoint someone who hasn’t held elective office. Would you rather he did that? Like, if he appointed a caretaker —
CK: You know, this is all for the governor. And you guys are really focused on, kind of, the ins and outs and the comparisons of this process, and so, that’s really something that you should be asking him. Really. Um, you know, if you want to talk about, sort of, the economy or the issues, or me, that’s, you know — I’d be happy to do that. But —
NC: This is about your interest in the seat, though, and what drives you to do it, and what you bring to wanting to do it, so the question is: Do you want it enough to just run for it if you just had to run for it, if the appointment wasn’t available, let’s say —
CK: But this is where we are right now, so, you know, so I’m expressing my interest; many other people are as well. And I think that the reasons that I’m doing that is because I think it’s a special moment in my life and in the life of this country, where there is this unique opportunity to help bring change to Washington. So I think it’s a time when an unconventional choice is possible, more than maybe some other times, I think that I have a background and relationships that would allow me to deliver for New York. And, you know, I think that since this came up I thought about it really seriously, I’ve thought through a lot of these issues, of how this would appear and things like that, people always have opinions about, especially people in our family — what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and I can’t really think about it from somebody else’s point of view.
NC: I understand what you’re saying, but this is your point of view, because you’re saying it would be easier if you ran for an election —
CK: I said in some ways it would be easier but this is where we are right now.
NC: So you’d rather do it with an appointment, you’d rather he not appoint a caretaker, this is the best way to do it for you.
CK: Um, no. I’m saying that this is the opportunity that’s presenting itself right now, and I’m interested if the governor thinks that I could do a good job and help New York and help him. He is facing, you know, a massive deficit, he needs people, a team in Washington that can help, you know, get New York its fair share, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s the stimulus, whether it’s TARP, and I think that I can be a member of that team and I think I have a lot of advantages to bring to that work. And I think the point of this all is that people are hurting across the state and in this city, and, you know, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring home a lot of the stimulus package, TARP funds, I mean, government is now poised to really invest in this economy, and I think we need to make sure it’s done, right, and that’s what I would like to do.
DH: We respect that, and I think we should talk about some issues, but I think we’re really focused on how much you want it for the reason that, one of the big assets that whoever is appointed to this job must bring is the fire in the belly, or the stomach, or whatever, to run two times in two years. And so, we’re just trying to establish how much you want this job. You’ve said you want it, you’ve said you think you’d be the best, but again, why would you say that you’d support whoever the governor chooses, and not run, in two years, if you’re not chosen? It just sort of — we were thinking about the way that sounds, and it sounds like you only want it if it’s handed to you.
CK: OK. Well, as I said, I’m interested in this opportunity, this is a complicated process, you know. I am a loyal Democrat, and I believe in the Democratic party, and I think that we need a team effort here to solve the problems that we have. So I will work with other Democrats, I will continue to advocate for the issues that I believe in, in two years, and I’m making that commitment, and after that, we’ll see what happens. (Pause) That’s a long time from now.
NC: Would you have sought this if there hadn’t been an appointment open, if it had been an election?
CK: I think we covered that.
NC: What’s the answer, then, if we covered it? Would you have considered going for this office if no appointment was available? If it was just an open seat in 2012? Would that have appealed to you?
CK: Well, it — 2012 is four years from now, and I just said that after 2010 I would think about, you know, anything, and I’m committed to these issues. This is the opportunity that’s now. I didn’t expect that it would come along, but, you know, a lot of life is seizing the moment and doing the unexpected thing. And I think, um, you know, that’s an important part of life. So is working hard over a long period of time. And so, I am, as I said, I told the governor I was interested, he has a process, he has a lot of candidates to weigh, and he’ll make the best decision for New York. And that’s why I will support whoever he picks.
Is that it? You guys want to ask that again? (Laughter)
DH: Well, we did have another way of coming at it.
CK: Go ahead, let’s ask that some more.
DH: Seriously, you know, everybody says, and the reporting that we did showed, that you were torn, that this decision took a lot of time to arrive at, at least a lot of thinking; your uncle, Senator Kennedy, obviously played a role in that. How disappointed would he have been if you’d have decided not to do it?
CK: Well, Teddy is — I don’t think that’s kind of, really, accurate in terms of the overall impression. But Teddy wants what would make me happy, and he wants that for everybody in our family, so, you know, he loves the Senate, he’s spent his whole life there, and I think has been one of the great senators in history, so of course, that, that kind of an example is inspiring, but I don’t think he would be disappointed in any way.
NC: I guess another way of thinking about it is that Jennifer Aniston movie, where she tells her boyfriend, ‘I want you to want to do the dishes,’ you know? And I wonder if Senator Kennedy wanted you to want to do it.
DH: “The Break-Up.”
CK: (Laughter) I hope you’re going to put this in the article, not just the answer. OK?
DH: I mean, was there anything wistful about it. Do you think he was hoping that you would really want to do it?
CK: No, as I said, I think Teddy wants everyone to do what is right for them. And I think he believes in public service, you know, of all kinds, and you know, in our family — you know, my aunt Eunice started the Special Olympics and I’d say she’s had an impact worldwide on the intellectually disabled. And, I mean, there’s many ways to serve, and elective office is one of them, and obviously it’s part of our family tradition, but it’s certainly not the only way. And I don’t think that Teddy would think for a minute that this was, you know, the Senate or nothing. I mean —
NC: No, I’m not —
DH: No, no. Nobody’s suggesting that. I mean, it just came up. You were thinking about it.
NC: It just seems like he —
DH: I just wonder if — he’s not giving interviews about it, you’re here, (laughter) and I think everybody would want to know: Did he get excited about the idea? Did you feel like he wanted you to do it? That’s it.
CK: As I said, I mean, he loves the Senate, it’s been, you know, the most, you know, rewarding life for him, you know, I’m sure he would love it to feel like somebody that he cared about had that same kind of opportunity, and I think he really — and so do I, think the impact he’s had on, you know, working people, you know, the minimum wage fights that he’s led, health care, I mean that’s really — his example is something that, as I said, inspires me, because of the impact that he’s been able to have. Whether it’s voting, civil rights, you know, across the board, and I think he’s shown that the Senate can have that kind of an impact on people’s daily lives. And that’s what’s appealing about this opportunity, and I mean, I think, for those reasons he would love to have somebody that he cares about following, you know, that tradition. But I think in terms of me, you know, he doesn’t care, you know, he’s happy if I’m happy.
NC: Can you tell us a bit about, on a similar note, people are very, very curious about the days in which you were weighing this, and who you talked to about it, and whose thoughts influenced you and inspired you as you were weighing this in your mind. Can you tell us, who was the first person you had a serious discussions of, like, ‘If I went for this, how would it work and what would it look like?’ Who was the first person you really talked to about it?
DH: Where you took it seriously.
NC: Where it was live.
CK: Um, well, I obviously talked to my husband and my children, you know, the family, friends, uh —
DH: Outside of your immediately family. Can you say who the first person was?
CK: You know, I mean, also people started talking to me about it, so it was kind of a process, you know —
DH: Was there one, like, kind of, like —
NC: ...tada moment?
DH: Yeah, where you actually kind of, in your own mind, started to say, ‘Huh, that’s like — maybe I really will think about this.’
CK: Well I think, as I said, there was, first — no, uh, you’re, uh — somebody dropped off 200 signs at my husband’s office, like, the day after all this was going on. So I felt with that — you know, so, and it builds. And, you know, I had conversations with Antonia Hernandez from the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund in California, and I thought, well, she’s someone I really respect, her legal mind, her sense of that community. And then there were people who I would run into during that period of time that, uh, people here in New York as well as people that I know from around the country, and I was up at the Institute of Politics meeting and I saw Elaine Chao, who’s the Secretary of Labor now, I know Hilda Solis who’s coming in, and a lot of people who I’ve, you know — Elaine Jones from the Legal Defense Fund, a lot of people that I talk to, you know, often in politics, and people that I met in the Obama campaign, who worked with me doing that kind of work. So I think it was kind of a broad range of people that, people that I’m close to...
NC: So when in your own mind did it go from, ‘It’s kind of an interesting idea’ to ‘Maybe I should do this?’ (Pause) Or was that —
CK: Over the last couple weeks. (She chuckles.)
NC: Was there any moment where —
CK: No, I don’t think there was a moment, I mean, this kind of thing is too important for it to be, like, an on-off switch, right? This is a process, and as I became more serious about it, and talked to more people, you know, I thought — and then obviously I called the governor and expressed interest, and um, you know, so...
NC: The signs were on what day? Was it before you called the governor?
CK: The what? Oh yeah, that was a while ago.
NC: That was a while ago?
NC: So that was after Senator Clinton had announced — so it was after the vacancy became possible?
CK: Well, yeah. Obviously.
NC: OK. (CK laughs.) I just wanted to make sure of the chronology.
DH: We just don’t know if it was after we started writing about you or —
CK: No, you guys had nothing to do with it. (Laughs.)
DH: No, we didn’t mean that. The timing.
NC: Uh, so sometime before those stories about your discussion with the governor, sometime after Senator Clinton had been tapped for —
CK: Yeah — yeah.
DH: What was the best single reason not to do it?
CK: Well, you know, I think it’s been a continuum, as I said, and I sort of first got involved in the city schools after 9/11, and I think that was really a defining moment for me, like a lot of people in New York. You know, thinking about, you know, how to become more involved on a civic level in this community. And I think over the last year, you know, during the Obama campaign, was really probably the most important thing that led me to this, because when I did travel much more extensively than I did in 2004, and um, you know, talked to people across the country and saw what was going on, and the impact that the campaign was having and the excitement that it generated, in both the primary and in the general election, and I think that that, uh, there’s a chance to sort of bring all the sort of values that are, that I’ve grown up with and really turn them into something new. This is not about the past, this is really about the future and the moment that we’re in, and I think that everybody right now has an obligation to think about what they can do to help. This is, you know — nobody can sit out this one any more. So I am volunteering to pitch in, if I’m, you know, if there’s something I can contribute, and if there’s someone else who can do a better job, the governor will pick them, and I’ll work in whatever way I can in another capacity.
DH: No, but, my question was, as you were weighing the decision, what was the best argument not to go for it?
NC: A personal reason.
CK: Well obviously the arguments to go for it were better than the arguments not to.
DH: No, but I’m asking, what was the best —
NC: What was the single —
DH: What was the best argument against it? I mean, what was the thing you had to most overcome?
CK: Well I knew it would be a big change in my life, and I have really a wonderful life, and but, I feel like, you know, it’s, you know, it’s not really complete if there are things you could be doing that would benefit others and you’re not taking, you know, the time and making the effort to do that. So, um, so I think it’s really the, you know, it would be a big change, and change can be, you know, traumatic. It’s different. It’s good!
NC: How much of a concern were your kids and your family that you checked with them before embarking on this?
CK: That was a concern. You know, as I said, I think they are really politically engaged and kind of going through the campaign last year with them, you know, and with my uncle, and sort of having this kind of multigenerational effort brought us all closer together, and I think that’s something that I think I saw in families across the country, where grandparents, people my age, and people voting for the first time all really felt that this was kind of a moment in time that re-energized people in terms of the change that needed to be possible. So I think in that way our family was like many, many others, and I feel lucky that I would even have, be considered for this kind of opportunity.
NC: Your husband hasn’t been — wasn’t very kind of visible on the campaign trail. I don’t know if he traveled with you with Barack Obama. Do you think he’ll be on the stump with you in New York, will he go to Watertown and to Syracuse and to —
CK: Well there’s nobody who has a more supportive husband than I do, and he has a business that he runs, and it’s his own business, so he has work to do, my kids have school to do, I mean, people have — there are other things in life besides politics. So he did come, you know, a few times, but he was home with our two children, home last year, so it’s kind of a, it’s a team effort.
NC: Do you think he’ll be around the state with you a little more than he was last year?
CK: Well it depends on what’s going on in his office. (Huffs.)
DH: I mean, does he have a desire to do it, if he can? Or, do you have a desire for him to do that with you?
CK: I mean, the more time I spend with him, the happier I am.
DH: Have the two of you figured out how to balance — I mean, among the other ways in which this is a change, is that it’s a change, I assume, in how you each together balance work and family and all that other stuff. Have you figured out how you’ll navigate that, if you become Senator? Or how that will change —
CK: Well since I’ve — I assume we’ll navigate that the way we’ve always navigated everything. I mean, both of us have had a lot of commitments, you know, up till now I think we’ve both put our family first. And my kids are really supportive of this idea, I think they understand that it will make — you know, bring change for them. But you know, again, I think this is, you know, I think he’s someone who’s committed to, you know, education, science education, you know, he makes children’s museums, you know, this is, he —
DH: He’s had a really cool career.
CK: What? Yeah, so for him, that I would have this opportunity, I think he believes strongly that, you know, that I would be great, and that I, this is, you know, an unbelievable privilege that I have, and he’s as concerned as I am about, you know, what we see here in this city and state that we both grew up in, and, you know, and that we both care about. So the idea that I can help people here I think is something that he totally is behind.
NC: Was he the first person you told — do you know if you uttered the words, ‘I think I’m gonna go for this?’ Or, something like it?
CK: Well, I don’t know if I utter those kinds of words, but yes. You know, it was a mutual decision.
NC: Could you, for the sake of storytelling, could you tell us a little bit about that moment, like, where you were, what you said to him about your decision, how that played out?
CK: Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something? (Laughter)
DH: What do you have against women’s magazines?
CK: Nothing at all, but I thought you were the crack political team here. As I said, it was kind of over a period of time, you know, obviously we talked about politics, we talked about what’s going on, we’ve been watching the team that the president-elect is putting together — Hillary Clinton is going to be a spectacular part of that team, you know, then there was a vacancy here, you know, just like everybody else, you know: who’s going to fill it, isn’t that interesting, there’s a lot of great candidates, you know, obviously I have become much more politically involved than I have in the past, so you know, I figure, why not try, I really think I have something to offer.
NC: But there was no one moment you can draw on —
CK: I know I wish there was, I’ll think about it.
NC: If there isn’t, that’s what it was, that’s fine too. We’re not the crack political team, we’re always looking for good anecdotes and good stories.
CK: I know, and I understand. I’ll think about it a little more.
DH: It’s not an executive branch thing, being a Senator, but there is a sizable staff that any senator manages. As you know from your uncle and many other senators, I’m sure. What management experience have you had? By the way, I think there’s some curiosity about, just, what sort of staff do you manage now?
CK: Um, I, uh, you know, I think there’s — obviously, you need to build a team, and that’s how effective, how tough senators are effective. So I understand that that is part of the job. And I have been — but I also think it’s the kind of leadership is also now, you know, kind of a public, there’s a public role to it, and it’s about building relationships, you know, in the institution, and in the other branches of government. So I think it’s a multi-layered effort. I think that building a staff is something that I would have no trouble doing. I think the staff that we built down at the Department of Education in the office that I’ve been, first, CEO of, and now kind of the Fund for Public Schools staff, is absolutely outstanding, and I think I would be able to do the same kind of thing here. And I think the results there show that.
DH: Would you comment on just how, in your personal life, what kind of people do you employ? I think there’s a lot of speculation about the Kennedy wealth, and the Caroline Kennedy wealth given that you’re looking for this job. Also, I think it gets to the question of whether you can show that you are able to relate to, just, everyday New Yorkers. I think that’s the vein that we’re asking the question in. But, would you say how many people you have on staff?
CK: Well I’ve been writing books. So that, by its nature, is kind of a solitary occupation. And from time to time I have research help, but mostly I’ve done those completely on my own. So I am not bringing a large management — that is not my background, in management of large organizations. But I think it’s much more focused on the individual. Most of the books that I’ve written have been focused on, sort of, the individual, and sort of, either a voice, a personal voice, or a kind of transforming event where they step forward to fight for something they value. So that’s ... and in terms of, so I don’t have large staff —
DH: Do you have any?
CK: In my house, is that what you’re asking me?
DH: Yeah. I think it gets to the whole, is there a Nannygate issue down the road.
CK: (Laughs) I think we’re heading down to the — I have somebody who helps me in my house, and I have an assistant who helps me with you, know, kind of all the correspondence, I mean, I’m on the board of the Legal Defense Fund, the Commission on Presidential Debates, I have staff that I work with down at the Department of Education, at the Kennedy Library, so in that way, I’m managing, you know, staff in different places, and so that’s really how I do that. They don’t work directly for me, but they’re people that I work with in all these different capabilities. So in that way it’s kind of a decentralized operation.
NC: Have your personal finances been affected by the economic crash?
CK: Um, probably — yes. (Laughter)
NC: Can you give a sense of how badly?
CK: You know, I think everybody’s — not as badly as a lot of people’s, but obviously everybody’s been hurt by this, and it doesn’t matter where you live. And, I’m lucky that I’m not afraid of losing my home. And my husband still has a job. And that’s not true for a lot of people. So I feel very fortunate, and that’s exactly why I would like to help people who are in those circumstances.
NC: How much money do you live on each year?
CK: Um, you know, I’m not really going to answer those kinds of specific questions. If I’m chosen for this, I’m going to comply with every kind of disclosure that’s available. If the governor has questions about my finances, I’m happy to talk to him.
NC: Is it $2 million? Is it less than $2 million? Is it more than $5 million? How much do you live on each year?
CK: Um, you know, as I said, if I’m selected, I’ll probably be able to answer all those questions, but I’m not going to go into that right now.
NC: The reason I ask is because it goes to the question: What experiences do you have, other than the campaign appearances you made with the president-elect, that give you the ability to relate to how average people live, and the struggles they’re facing now?
CK: Well, you know, I have grown up around politics, I have lived a very advantaged life, and I am very fortunate, and I think that — but our family tradition has been always to work for, as I said, for working people, and I think my experience in the New York City Public Schools, you know, I’ve been doing that for six years, and I have a real understanding of the kind of struggles that people are facing. Many of those families are headed by women who are poor, and the kids are poor. So I think that I’ve seen firsthand, and extensively across this city, the need that there is, the disadvantage those kids are at when they enter school without the kind of support that kids from more fortunate backgrounds have, and the long-term impact of that on our city. We have a dropout rate that is still way too high, these kids aren’t graduating. So I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my life working in the community here, and in politics, so I think I’ll have a pretty good understanding.
NC: How much of that job in the city schools involved going to schools? Did you do a lot of on-site stuff?
CK: I do a lot of on-site visits, you know, I think the job was really to connect these schools with the broader city communities, so that involved both working with the business community, training — to train, you know, set up the Leadership Academy to train new principals. So that involved going to meet with business leaders, it also involved many trips to meet the new principals and the schools that they would be working in. When it’s an arts curriculum that we put together, we had the cultural community come in and work with the Department of Education, you know, that’s trips to the schools where the arts education is being delivered or not delivered, and we did a census, basically, on what kind of arts were going on, how many kids are exposed to how many disciplines of art throughout the city, so that requires a lot of time, too.
NC: How many schools would you say you’ve visited over the course of that work?
CK: I can get you that number because they have a track of it, the Department of Education.
NC: There have been some discrepancies in the reporting on your job there, which grants you were involved in, like the Gates grant. Some people say that you brought that one in, or, I think Joel Klein said you brought that one in; some former employees of the fund said, actually that grant was pretty much already in the works. Do you feel like maybe the people who are fans of yours have been trying to bolster you perhaps a little too much, and maybe giving you too much credit for the fund-raising?
CK: Well, the Fund for Public Schools was started in the ’80s, and it really functioned as a sort of a pass-through for specific school donations over a certain amount. And it brought in about an average of $2 million a year, with more after 9/11 that was mostly intended for the Lower Manhattan schools. So when we kind of relaunched it and revitalized it, you know, now we’ve raised $238 million since then. So I think that, whether it’s the Leadership Academy, the Gates grant that you’re speaking of, you know, went to many of the partner organizations who are developing, starting small high schools. But I think that, right at the end there, I played an important role. So I’m not claiming all the credit for the setup, for the planning — those are planning grants for 51 small high schools — I mean $51 million for small high schools. So this work had been going on for a long time. But there was still a pretty — a skepticism about private funds going to public education, how they were used, and whether there were results. And what we really focused on, what I really focused on, was trying to target those funds to initiatives that would have an impact across the whole system. Because there are a lot of organizations that either work in individual schools, do partnerships, do, you know, arts education services, many other kinds of CBOs and faith-based organizations that work across the system. But there isn’t anybody else who’s targeting the whole system, so that was kind of an issue we defined for ourselves, and I think that’s why it’s been effective.
NC: So your precise role in the Gates grant was what? You came in at the end...
CK: It coincided with the time that I came into the department, and I think it was important to Bill Gates that I was there.
DH: What do you mean? I don’t get it. Just that you were there physically? Or just that you had arrived?
CK: Well I don’t know, you gotta ask him. But I think I, um —
DH: Do you deserve the credit that people are giving you for having helped to bring it in?
CK: Some of the credit, yeah.
DH: Can you talk about — given your work for the city schools, your support for the schools, we have to ask, though there’s nothing wrong with the choice, why you chose to send your own children to private school? What was it about, why exactly did you decide to keep them out of the public schools and go to the schools that they did?
CK: Well, they were already in school, and they were in middle school, I think, and in high school when I joined — yeah, so —
DH: When you started to work, yeah. But at the point that you decided to send them to private school, why? What was the reason?
CK: Why? Well, I think that I made a decision that was best for our family, and I think that everybody should have, obviously, excellent choices, and that’s — I want every kid to have the same kind of opportunities that my kids have. So I didn’t obviously want to move them for my own purposes, because they were on their path.
NC: So you never considered public school for them from the beginning?
CK: I think that, for us, for our family, the schools that we chose were probably the right ones.
NC: What about an issue that’s very important in public schools, and you’ve been involved in: teacher tenure. Are you familiar with Michelle Rhee’s proposal to trade tenure for more money, essentially. Do you think that New York City should have a system, for instance, where, or even nationally, we should have a system where teachers should have the chance to give up tenure in exchange for a lot more money? Is that a policy you would support?
CK: I think that the whole issue of teacher training, teacher support, teacher compensation, attracting and recruiting — I mean, there are so many people that are looking to become teachers, and for the very best reasons. But I think that what we see is that it’s a really tough job, and that we don’t support teachers, we don’t support the good ones, in a way that so many leave before five years are up. So I think that we need to do an across-the-board work on the teaching profession.
NC: Is that a good idea, though, that one idea?
CK: Well I think it’s important to raise these issues. I don’t — that’s a really controversial idea, and I don’t think standing alone, you know — Washington, D.C., is a separate thing. I mean, New York City has a million — 1.1 million kids, 90,000 teachers; Washington, D.C., is a really, really small system. So I don’t think it is a one-size-fits-all. But I think it’s a national priority to support teachers and do a better job of training and certifying —
NC: But really, this is a single important issue, I mean, it would be good to hear your stance on it. Do you think that can work? Do you think that —
CK: I think it has to be done, you know, collaboratively with the teachers and with the union. I think here the school-wide bonuses that we gave, here, that we’ve done with the union and the city — I mean, that is, I think, a good model. There’ve been — Arne Duncan, the new Secretary of Education, incoming, has worked with the union and I think that the reform efforts that they’ve made over time will yield benefits in terms of student achievements. So if you just pick out the most controversial one as a stand-alone thing, you know, I don’t think that’s really the way to go about this. I think if people can vote it’ll be really interesting to see what happens. I think there’s a lot of experimentation going on around the country that we should pay attention to. But here, I think these bonuses that are shared schoolwide give everyone in the leadership team incentive in the school to work together to raise the kids’, you know, achievement, and I think that’s going to be an interesting thing to see how that works. And the schools, you know, have almost all signed up for it.
NC: So you’re not going to answer about teacher tenure?
CK: About that specific proposal?
NC: Yeah. That’s a big one. That could become a national issue, that could become —
CK: Yeah, it could be, so I want to watch — I haven’t talked to her about it, and I know what the concept is, and I think it’s really interesting. As I said, I think my initial approach would be to work with, talk to everybody involved with that and see how that is going down. And I think there’s a lot going on in Washington, D.C., that’s going to play into that.
NC: Do you think test scores should be a part of tenure decisions? Does that make sense to you in as one aspect —
CK: You know, I think there’s also a lot of problems with test scores, and so, you know, I think we need to give the schools the flexibility. There’s too much reliance on these, you know, NAPE tests. But No Child Left Behind is going to come up, right, for reauthorization in the next couple of years and that is an area that I feel I would bring a lot, and that’s an issue and a set of issues that, you know, were I lucky enough to be selected that we could discuss, you know, in more detail, but that’s something, an area that I have a lot of thoughts about.
DH: Just to talk a little more about issues: a lot of your political positions seem pretty straight-up-the-middle, conventional for a Democrat.
CK: Does that surprise you?
DH: No. But I wonder, what are the biggest areas where you disagree with Democratic party orthodoxy? We want to know what sets you apart. You’ve cited a lot of examples and influences; what would be a subject that we would expect your position to be a real surprise on?
CK: Well, I think that there’s a range of views in the Democratic party. And you know, I am a proud Democrat, those are the values, you know — middle class tax relief, helping working families, fixing the health care system — those are the national priorities right now. So those are the issues that I would expect — I mean, I am a Democrat, that is, you know — I am trying to become a Democratic senator, so I don’t, um — I mean, there are issues along the way, that I’m sure that people have differences of opinion. There’s controversies in all these areas.
DH: One where you have a clear-eyed idea about where you stand on something that is diff —
CK: That is different from who? Anybody?
DH: The party platform. I mean, pick some standard. Just something that would surprise —
CK: I support gay marriage, I support, you know, I’ve had problems with Nafta, I mean, I don’t — if we’re not comparing it to anybody specifically it’s hard to say where I’m going to disagree.
NC: How about Governor Paterson?
CK: But I’m a traditional Democrat, so that’s what I want to fight for, those are the values I want to fight for.
NC: Is there any issue on which you and Governor Paterson disagree that you can think of?
CK: Well, I think Governor Paterson has — I can tell you two of the areas where I think he’s done great work. Which is, alternative energy —
NC: That wasn’t the question. Is there anything on which you two disagree?
CK: No, I’m not going to talk about my disagreements with Governor — I think he’s done a great job as a leadership, yeah, absolutely.
DH: Two powerful, respected people are allowed to differ.
CK: They are. They are.
DH: We just wonder where we’ll find out that you differ.
CK: Well, you’ll find out over time. You know, as issues come along.
DH: What about Mike Bloomberg? I mean, you worked in his administration.
DH: He’s not currently a registered Democrat, although he has been in the past, and some say, you walk like a duck, et cetera. But, where do you differ with him?
CK: Well, I think what people are really looking for is for people to work together, and so, and, you know, you can laugh at that, but it’s something I take really seriously and I think that we need Republicans and Democrats, all Democrats, you know, people need to look at what we have in common and what we can get done here. I mean, health care’s a perfect example, you know, all the stakeholders are at the table. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had different plans, but, you know, I think the goal now is to get quality affordable health care and there’s many ways of going at it. And I think the point now is to find something that’s going to work, that’s going to reduce costs and get more people covered. So I think, you know, now is the time for people to come together and focus on compromise. I think that’s one of the things I have learned from my uncle. I mean, he’s worked with Republicans, Democrats, anybody who can get the job done.
NC: Do you plan to vote for the mayor in 2009?
CK: I plan to vote for the Democrat.
DH: What if he doesn’t get on the Democratic line?
CK: I plan to vote for the Democrat.
NC: Last question and then we’ll let you go. What’s your favorite place to visit in New York State aside from New York City and Long Island?
CK: What’s my favorite place to visit? Um, you know, there’s lots of beautiful places in New York and I have friends, you know, I’ve been to the Catskills, I’ve been up to the Adirondacks. I like to go to historical sites. So I loved visiting the battlefield at Saratoga.
NC: I think we’re done.
DH: I think so, yeah.
NC: Thank you very much for your time.
CK: Thank you.
DH: If I can just throw one more question out there —
CK: I think we’re done.