Q & A: Politico’s Maggie Haberman

“One of the best things that has happened for Charlie Rangel is that his biggest enemy is the New York Post.”

Maggie Haberman covered New York politics for over a decade at the New York Post, with a three-and-a-half-year stint at the rival Daily News. In that time she’s earned the fear of the state’s politicians and the respect of her peers—the Daily News’s Liz Benjamin told The New York Observer, “Maggie’s like fucking changing a diaper with one hand, holding a BlackBerry in the other, and breaking stories, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’” Five months ago, Haberman took her multitasking skills to Politico just in time for a midterm election that sees Governor Paterson stepping down, Chuck Schumer holding strong, and Charles Rangel at the center of a national storm. Haberman spoke with CJR assistant editor Joel Meares in the run-up to the September 14 New York primary. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Why the interest in politics?

I was sent to cover City Hall by the Post in 1999, when I was twenty-four, and I knew absolutely nothing. But it was a lot of fun and City Hall then was an incredibly interesting place to be because of Rudy Giuliani. It had a certain allure as a new reporter. From then I was hooked.

Are you still excited by it?

New York politics is so driven by New York City and by the governor’s office. And I think you’ve had, over the last two years, an incredibly interesting story both at the city level, with what Mayor Bloomberg did with term limits, which was very controversial, and the wild ride that has been the capital. Between Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, and Hillary Clinton leaving, there’s been so much going on that it’s been hard for reporters to catch our breaths. And we had a very strange scenario of two New Yorkers as prestige frontrunners for presidential nominations for a while.

What have been the differences between reporting for the Post and reporting for Politico?

It’s very different working for a website, that’s the biggest difference. I have no off button now. If I don’t have the fixed end point of a daily deadline, it’s a little harder for me to turn my brain off. And, also, having a blog is a little different than filing once a day—with a blog you’re constantly filing. On the other hand, with a blog you have a real voice, which is a nice thing.

The Post is obviously a little different. It’s a tabloid, among other things. And in New York politics, the Post is completely dominant and it sets the agenda. It’s sort of apples and oranges, though Politico is also very dominant and it sets the agenda in Washington. It’s been about adapting a New York flavor to a broader audience.

Has anything surprised you less than when Andrew Cuomo announced his candidacy for governor in May?

No, but Hillary announcing she was running for president might have been equally as unsurprising. The only surprise in the governor’s race has been how little of a race there has actually been, even though I don’t think any of us was expecting a huge battle. I think Andrew Cuomo himself has been pretty surprised at how late he was able to declare and how little outside pressure there has been on him to do certain things, in terms of discussing plans and intentions.

How has the press dealt with that inevitability?

There has been a lot of discussion about whether this will be like 2006, where the press coronated Eliot Spitzer and then obviously regretted the lack of deeper analysis of him. I think the difference this time is that many members of the press actually liked Eliot Spitzer quite a bit; I don’t think most members of the press are particularly enamored of Andrew Cuomo. There is a difference, but the end product is the same: I don’t think either man, during their campaigns, got a ton of scrutiny.

Why are people less enamored with Cuomo than they are with Spitzer?

I just think it’s stylistic—tonally if you look at the coverage of Eliot Spitzer in 2006 compared to the coverage of Andrew Cuomo, on balance it’s harsher on Cuomo.

What did you think when Spitzer landed his upcoming gig on CNN?

America is all about second chances.

No one has even bothered challenging Cuomo. Why is that?

Because they wouldn’t win. Period. The only way that it would happen would be if several people did, because then it would be a diluted field and there would be safety in numbers. But the reality is that the Democrats are the ones that hold the seat. They don’t want to take a risk. The party is in total disarray in the state—and so is the Republican Party in the state—and they don’t want to lose it.

There was some talk last year that Rudy Giuliani might have entered the race.

I never for a minute thought that Rudy Giuliani was going to enter the governor’s race. I can be quite unequivocal about that. It’s a CEO job, and that’s the only kind that he’d be interested in, but it’s Albany, it’s highly dysfunctional, and it’s not like New York City. The city has a unicameral legislature and there’s a bicameral legislature at the state level. It’s very, very, hard to get anything done. You have far more diluted powers as governor of New York State than you do as mayor of New York City. At the end of the day the specifics of the job would not be very attractive to him, and frankly, at the end of the day, he stepped out, he was a presidential candidate.

On the Republican side of the governor’s race, Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino have filled in. How have they fared?

I covered Rick Lazio when he ran against Hillary Clinton. He’s a long-serving congressman from Long Island, but he’s been out of politics for ten years and I think he’s run an incredibly lackluster campaign marked by incredibly poor fundraising. He’s highly consultant-driven. He had a shakeup in the campaign a couple of weeks ago, and I have to be honest, I don’t see a tremendous difference. I can’t understand why you’re shaking up your campaign six weeks out from the primary anyway.

I don’t think that Carl Paladino will win the GOP primary, because he just has not spent yet, in terms of what he would need to do to win. But he could win the primary, and the fact that that is the case is a real condemnation of Rick Lazio’s candidacy.

Lazio has made an issue of the so called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Did you see the mosque issue coming?

He’s made more than an issue of it; it’s been his single issue for the past two months. And, yes, I saw it coming. The two New York tabloids were getting very heavily invested in that story.

Did you anticipate becoming as national an issue as it has?

Not as much as it has, but that happened because of President Obama’s speech. But I did anticipate it was going to keep going and growing. I covered the aftermath of the World Trade Center for two years. John Podhoretz, the former editorial page editor of the New York Post, had an op-ed in the Post two weeks ago, which was absolutely on target. He was saying that part of the issue here, and why it has taken off, is because there’s nothing at the site, there’s still nothing built. And that makes it a lot easier for angry feelings to fester.

Has Lazio been effective in using the mosque as an issue?

Well, I am looking at the polls today and in terms of the head-to-head with Cuomo, not at all. In terms of the primary, we’ll see what the numbers are.

In the race for to become senior senator for the state, just how much of a frontrunner is Chuck Schumer?

Chuck is unbeatable. Chuck is completely safe. Against Republicans Gary Berntsen and Jay Townsend? Definitely. Sure, his approval rating has gone down like everybody else’s; it’s bad for incumbents. Chuck has really taken a hit and the more national his profile has become and the more partisan he has become, the more his numbers have started to fall.

Why, then, is he still unbeatable?

The GOP didn’t find anyone who could be a credible candidate. They were never going to beat him, but they had a chance to kind of ding him, and that just didn’t happen. Townsend is not very well known and Berntsen was quoted talking about executing people, and I’m paraphrasing, but you’re not talking about a heavyweight. You needed someone with stature. If you were really going to try to hurt Chuck Schumer—and again, you weren’t going to beat him—but to hurt him, you needed to have a single candidate whom both the Conservative Party and the Republican Party had a consensus on. And they had to have started raising money about a year ago. Schumer has $23 million. Neither of those things has happened.

Schumer’s popularity has dropped, but not as steeply as Democrats in other states. Why is that?

At the end of the day he’s still a pretty effective senator and he works very hard. He shows up at a lot of places and he’s been doing this for twelve years—he has a fair amount of credit in the bank.

How has the junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, acquitted herself in the job?

It’s hard to say. I think it’s tough being the junior senator to Chuck unless you’re Hillary, in which case you have the chance to carve out your own space. I think it is not a good thing for Gillibrand, though, that so many voters still don’t know who she is and don’t identify with her. This is a special election for her, she comes up for election again in two years and, assuming that she wins this year, she is going to have to do a better job defining herself with the electorate. I thought she’d be faring better by now in terms of public opinion polls. I thought she would have more definition and more flesh on the bone.

The other race catching national attention is the contest for the fifteenth congressional district, Charlie Rangel’s seat. How has he managed to weather the storm of his ethics scandal in his own district?

There are two reasons. One, he’s been an effective congressman for the district. And two, there is a sense within the district that forces such as the press are trying to take him out. One of the best things that has happened for Charlie Rangel is that his biggest enemy is the New York Post. It’s not a well-loved newspaper in that district and it works to his advantage. And people feel that what he’s accused of is not that big a deal.

The biggest issue in terms of his ethics charges for people in the district has been the apartments. It sounds greedy to people in that district, they can’t afford it, the rent control laws are set up for people with low incomes. That one sticks with some voters. But the reality is that his rivals have also not done anything other than set themselves up as the anti-Rangels. Generally, nobody has set up a good alternative.

Do local newspapers like the Post have more of an impact in New York than in other cities?

I think that there are a couple of places we’ve seen in this electoral cycle where the “free media” still plays a huge role. But New York is really a place where the free media defines things; in most places in the country these days paid media has much more influence. But New York is still a free media town.

Has the national media been effective in covering the New York races?

Nationally, I think a lot of people don’t understand that Rangel is not going to lose his primary. And I’ve been really surprised by the number of stories I’ve seen outside of New York suggesting that Rangel is really vulnerable on September 14. He is not vulnerable, his question is his margin. That storyline continues to go on.

But generally speaking people are getting it right. The reality is that a lot of the framework for what’s happening in New York right now is pretty simple and is reflective of what’s happening in the rest of the country.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.