NEW YORK - During the two years Caroline Kennedy worked as a fundraiser and goodwill ambassador for New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, co-workers would frequently drift by her workspace for a glimpse of the department’s most famous $1-a-year employee.
As often as not, they were greeted by an empty chair.
“I’d get it all the time - ‘Why isn’t Caroline at her desk?’” said a person who worked closely with Kennedy, who ran the Department of Education division that oversaw public-private partnerships from 2002 to 2004.
“But that missed the point. She didn’t need to be sitting at a desk,” the person added.
“She kept in touch every single day, by phone, by e-mail or sometimes in person... Or she was out in the field visiting schools.”
A passionate commitment to public education is one of Kennedy’s three main selling points in her bid to win appointment to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat, along with her platinum pedigree and a reputation for above-the-fray rectitude.
Yet because she has taken so few public positions, her education record - or what passes for it - has become just about the only public policy issue on which the 51-year-old political rookie can be judged.
The problem is, she hardly left a vapor trail.
Kennedy, who sent her three children to one of Manhattan’s most exclusive private schools, sat out the epic legal battle to secure billions in state funding for low-income students, and played an ambiguous role during her 22 months as the only city educational bureaucrat routinely harassed by the paparazzi.
Nevertheless, Klein says Kennedy’s education experience has prepared her “for the big leagues” of the U.S. Senate and describes her as a “highly focused, efficient and hands-on” fundraiser who helped rake in more than $200 million in private-sector contributions for city schools.
“Caroline took over an office that previously oversaw donations to PTAs and alumni associations and recreated it around a model of a public-private partnership,” Klein wrote in an op-ed published Friday.
“The model she created in New York City has led to similar efforts in other school districts across America.”
But several people who worked with Kennedy during her department service take a markedly less grandiose view of her accomplishments.
They say the 51-year-old lawyer and author, while a dedicated advocate for the schools, was less a traditional fundraiser than a highly credible department spokeswoman who used her name to keep big-money donors from fleeing the cash-strapped system.
“She brought us a lot of visibility,” said a person who worked directly with Kennedy, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There was not a lot of fundraising by her personally, but there was a lot of strategizing - ‘Here’s what this organization might do for us,’ - that kind of thing… Her main task was helping to rebuild the credibility of the school system, not directly raising money.”
One business executive familiar with her efforts said that Kennedy provided “star power, not fundraising muscle.”
Kennedy arrived at the Department of Education in 2002, at the behest of Klein and his wife Nicole Seligman, who ran into her at a party in Martha’s Vineyard, according to press accounts. She was eager to learn about the sprawling system, visiting dozens of schools throughout the city, often riding out by subway, in an effort to boost morale and gauge students’ needs.
Those trips shaped her agenda, associates say: She became especially concerned with the lack of arts funding and began to pressure some donors to direct their contributions to underfunded arts and music programs.
Kennedy’s level of involvement increased the star-wattage of events. She played a cenral role organizing a Sept. 2003 charitable concert headlined by folk-rocker Dave Matthews and a June 2004 “tag sale” fundraiser with actress Sarah Jessica Parker.
Still, she averaged about only about three hours in the office every day, according to news accounts, and it wasn’t entirely clear what she did the rest of the time. By mid-2004, she was ready to throw herself into a book tour.