This week, former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is celebrating her first year in office as the junior senator from New York. It was over a year ago when Clinton defeated Long Island Congressman Rick Lazio in a landslide victory.
As a reporter for a chain of Long Island newspapers, I covered Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, which unofficially began over a year before Election Day.
We first met on her “listening tour” of New York back in the summer of 1999, as she was beginning to learn the issues of the state and its people. We sat down for an interview a year later, three months before the election.
In light of the anniversary, the following is a look back at Clinton’s candidacy, and what her hopes were for New York at the time. Of course, she could not have imagined how important her job would be after Sept. 11 of this year.
Why the Senate?
Clinton: When Senator [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan said he was going to retire, democrats started calling me literally within 24 hours to ask me to consider it. I thought they were out of their minds, and I told them that! They knew they would need someone who was not afraid to, or had some national base to be able to raise some money to go against the Mayor. Other Democrats, who could have run, decided for one reason or another not too. The pressure never abated.
Why New York?
Clinton: Bill [Clinton] and I had always talked about moving to New York after the White House years, because I thought there was no place I’d rather live. I could be able to maybe teach, write, speak, and do things I’d done for many years. That was already a decision we had made, but obviously not expecting it to be celebrated in any way.
Your husband is no stranger to running for office; you on the other hand are new at this.
Clinton: I knew [being a candidate] would be very hard, and a big challenge. I started talking with real people [not just elected officials], and found I loved it. I fell in love with the beauty of New York. To really get in the car and drive around and see things was great. It’s been a very emotionally gratifying experience. I then made the big step deciding I’d be a candidate. I had to be convinced that I really wanted to do it, and convinced that I wouldn’t be a total disaster. That I was doing it for the right reasons.
Is it hard?
Clinton: Being a candidate is much harder than I ever thought it would be. I want to take back any advice I ever gave to anyone, including my husband!
When talking to New Yorkers, I found that for 30 years, I’ve worked on the issues that people talk to me about. Things I though would be a very good base going into the senate. This was an evolving process; I didn’t wake up one day and say ‘gee I think ill run for the senate from New York’. A lot of internal debate on my own part on whether I could and should do it.
Mrs. Clinton, you carry a lot of clout. How do you think having a former first lady in the Senate benefits New Yorkers?
Clinton: It would give me both extra attention and influence not only in the Senate but outside as well. For example, given the broad range of my contacts and acquaintances from literally all over the world, there are people I can bring in to talk about problems, make investments, provide grants to deal with issues right here at home. I can use the attention I would get personally and channel that on behalf of New Yorkers. I can serve as a bridge to bring issues to broader attention. I can make things happen, not just being a voice in the senate, but bring value-added capacity to that role as a catalyst and convener to bring people together.
What do you think the role of the Senate should be?
Clinton: The senate is just as important as it has ever been, but it is more difficult to serve in. I think part of what we’ve got to do is get the Senate back to the collegial body it was meant to be. 100 people, who get along, they may have differences of opinion, but they understand in a democracy they must be willing to compromise and see each other as human beings and spend some time building up those personal relations again. You’ve got to work with people on both sides of the isle.
You have had your fair share of critics. Why is it often so extreme?
Clinton: The people, who oppose me, know I really mean it. I don’t need the perks of visibility that comes with holding office. If I say I’m going to fight for clean air and water and open space preservation, I’m going to fight for it. I don’t need the kind of support that comes from special interest groups. I’m a strong and consistent person. You can disagree with me, but I think everyone knows that when I say I’ll do something, I stick with it.