As a former New Yorker, I am occasionally obliged to ask impertinent questions. Such as:

How can Democrats, who ridiculed Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as an inexperienced political wannabe, now embrace the idea of elevating Caroline Kennedy — who hasn’t served a day in public office — to Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat? How, indeed, can the same “progressives” who opposed Clinton’s election as president because they were repelled by the notion of extending the “Clinton dynasty” now be keen on perpetuating the Kennedy dynasty through an appointment?

As a longtime admirer of Sen. Ted Kennedy, I am embarrassed.

The iconic Massachusetts senator and others in the family are actively promoting John F. Kennedy’s daughter — who famously shunned the gritty political world for the sanctuary of public service through her private endeavors — to take the Senate seat once occupied by her late uncle, Robert F. Kennedy, and now held by Clinton. A decision on filling the vacancy should Clinton be confirmed as secretary of state is up to New York Gov. David Paterson, who could be forgiven, in moments like this, if he fleetingly wishes that he’d not ascended to the office after predecessor Eliot Spitzer’s indiscretions.

What, exactly, is the case to be made for Caroline Kennedy?

Certainly she would bring her family’s Rolodex, which is one route to credibility in a state where campaigns are extraordinarily costly — a total of $69 million was spent on the 2000 Senate race.

An argument is also made that Kennedy would keep aflame the liberal dreams her father ignited decades ago, and which her Uncle Ted has ably nurtured throughout his career. No doubt she is bright and committed to public service.

But if these are the sole qualifications, plenty of New York Democrats meet them.

They are, as a group, a famously liberal bunch. None can plausibly argue that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and members of the New York congressional delegation who are said to be interested in the seat aren’t sufficiently committed to public service; they’ve spent their lives in it. As for naming a woman to the job, as Paterson is being pressured to do, New York has a trove of experienced political women who’ve proved themselves in the trenches. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg isn’t one of them. She’s never taken the risk of running for office or sullied herself with the day-to-day messiness of public life.

Comparisons to Clinton’s 2000 Senate bid are invalid. Clinton ran for the office, doggedly visiting all 62 counties and campaigning through long days and nights that took her from African-American churches in Brooklyn to Hudson Valley apple farms to agricultural fairs upstate. Her Republican opponent outspent her. The media coverage was relentless. Clinton won by a double-digit margin.

For all its cosmopolitan aura, New York’s politics are defined by ancient grievances and clannish alliances. Ethnic and racial rivalries boil. There’s an enduring rift between upstaters who resent New York City’s dominance of state affairs, and downstate city and suburban residents who send most of the tax money to state coffers. Cuomo, one of Kennedy’s chief rivals for the Senate appointment, is the former husband of one of her cousins.

Arcane squabbles routinely throw New York politics into utter turmoil. Example: Since Election Day, when Democrats wrested control of the state Senate from Republicans to gain full power for the first time since the New Deal, Albany has been consumed by a threat of three Democratic lawmakers to throw their support to Republicans, thus denying their own party the right to preside over the Senate chamber. Paterson was forced to broker a power-sharing solution to placate the dissidents — a deal came just days ago.

A U.S. senator doesn’t have to get into this swamp, but it’s good to know how to navigate around it. Kennedy doesn’t. Not that she couldn’t learn.

In fact, if she wants to be senator, there is a path to the job — the special election necessary to fill the Clinton seat in 2010, no matter who gets the interim appointment. A campaign would allow Kennedy to prove her mettle. Voters could take the measure of her as a potential leader, not as a celebrity.

I’m sure those in the far corners of the state would welcome her, just as they welcomed Clinton. A Kennedy is a big draw. And there isn’t a county chairman alive who would pass up the chance to make the annual rubber-chicken dinner a certain sellout.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Correction: The figure in the 6th paragraph originally read $96 million. That number has been corrected to $69 million.

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