If Caroline Kennedy becomes a senator, she'd be New York's second female celebrity senator to take an unconventional route to Congress.
Kennedy is a lawyer who has written about constitutional issues and raised money for the New York City school system. She expressed interest in the job Monday, according to several officials in the state, including the man who will make the choice, Gov. David Paterson.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, named by President-elect Barack Obama to be secretary of State in his administration, was the nation's first lady for eight years before moving to New York in 2000 to run for the Senate seat. Despite her family's political legacy, Kennedy has largely stayed out of politics.
"We really don't have a sense of what she is capable of doing — her approaches, her orientations, her thinking," says Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. "We don't know, and neither does the governor. She doesn't have a legislative record or really a governmental record."
New York critics have zeroed in on that lack of public record. "She's not demonstrated the qualifications or the experience for the position," Robert Zimmerman, a Clinton adviser and fundraiser, told the New York Post.
New York activist Al Sharpton said in a statement that he is neutral but also defended Kennedy. "I unequivocally disagree with those that say she is not qualified," he said, adding that Kennedy's civic involvement makes her qualified.
Joel Klein, New York City schools chancellor, said Kennedy created an Office of Strategic Partnerships that has raised "hundreds of millions of dollars" for groundbreaking projects.
"This isn't the most glamorous work in the world," Klein said. "She built the office, she did the work, and she's got solid judgment. Obviously, she brings a marquee background, knows people and, I think, can get the job done for our state and our city."
When Obama became the nominee, he asked Kennedy to research vice presidential prospects along with Eric Holder, now Obama's nominee for attorney general. Holder, speaking to USA TODAY at the Democratic National Convention, said Kennedy worked hard and visited Washington often to meet with interest groups and lawmakers.
"She was not window dressing. She was intimately involved," Holder said. "She's extremely detail-oriented."
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist and speechwriter who has worked for the Kennedys, said that "like Hillary Clinton, the minute she got there, she would have influence."
Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University of New York-New Paltz, counters that New York's limited political opportunities should be available to politicians.
"We shouldn't be finding national icons to appoint to high national office. There is not a Kennedy seat in the U.S. Senate that we have to preserve for that family," he said.
That said, Benjamin added, naming Kennedy would allow Paterson to avoid choosing among Democratic factions in the state.
Polls on Clinton's successor last week were inconclusive. A Marist poll found Kennedy tied as the favorite with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Public Policy Polling had Kennedy leading Cuomo 44%-23%.