Anti-tax entrepreneur Marc Cenedella wants to run against Kirsten Gillibrand and pay for it, too
Among the parade of lawmakers and lobbyists who crowded into the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon for Governor Andrew Cuomo's State of the State speech was Marc Cenedella, a web entrepreneur, anti-tax activist and would-be Senate candidate.
For the last month and a half, Cenedella has been meeting with Republicans across the state in order to express to them, in person, how serious he is about challenging Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand this year.
On a scale of 1 to 10, apparently, Cenedella says he's a 9.2.
"He's out there working hard and meeting with a lot of people," said Manhattan G.O.P. chairman Dan Isaacs, who met with Cenedella recently and called him a "very, very impressive young man."
Cenedella—a 41-year-old millionaire who contributed to Ron Paul's last presidential campaign and sits on the leadership council of the anti-tax Club for Growth—is the latest Republican rumored to be interested in running against Gillibrand, who Republicans insist is a highly vulnerable target, despite her big win in 2010, some strong recent poll numbers, and more than $7 million dollars in cash on hand at the end of September.
In theory, Gillibrand was a lot more vulnerable two years ago, the first time she faced election after her controversial Senate appointment by then-governor David Paterson. But a parade of high-profile potential challengers—Rudy Giuliani, Peter King, Rick Lazio, George Pataki, Dan Senor, and one Democrat, Harold Ford—declined to test the proposition.
This time around, there are no high-profile Republicans playing around with the idea of running against her, and even lower-profile opponents seem inclined to pass.
Harry Wilson, a capable candidate with moderate views who narrowly lost a race for state comptroller last year, hinted at his interest in a Senate run after being floated in a column by Fred Dicker in early November. But he has yet to meet with potential supporters, and recently signed on as finance chairman for a congressional candidate, Matt Doheny.
That leaves Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos as the only Republican who has declared for the race. And, perhaps, Cenedella, who has never run for office, or so much as contributed to a campaign in New York State.
To ease his introduction into New York's political class, Cenedella has enlisted the help of E. O'Brien (O'B) Murray, the longtime Republican operative who recently steered Bob Turner to a surprise victory in a special election to replace Anthony Weiner in New York's Ninth Congressional District. (Through Murray, Cenedella declined to be interviewed for this article.)
On Wednesday, just before the State of the State in the Capitol, Cenedella and Murray ducked into the upstairs office of Fred Dicker, the New York Post state editor who had initially reported Cenedella's interest in a Senate run and frequently savages the liberal Gillibrand, for a few minutes of off-the-record conversation. Previously, Cenedella and Murray had met with the Republican and Conservative party chairs Ed Cox and Mike Long, respectively, and with most of the downstate county chairs near Cenedella's home in Manhattan. Last month, the pair made a swing out to Western New York for introductions in Buffalo and Syracuse.
On Thursday morning, at a post-State of the State meeting of Republican county chairs in Albany, Cenedella was the only candidate who spoke, introducing himself to the group and offering up the basic rationale for his would-be candidacy.
The core of Cendella's appeal is a common characteristic of little-known, would-be Republican candidates in New York: He has the means to pay for his own campaign, or at least part of it.
What he has told chairs, specifically, is that would be be willing kick-start the campaign with a large donation to himself (beyond even the $5 million that Maragos has pledged). He also said that, as the founder of a successful employment website, he can talk persuasively about job creation in the very year when that matters most.
"In a race that is going to have a lot to do with economics and fiscal issues, he brings quite a lot to the table," said Bob Scamardella, the Staten Island Republican chair who recently met Cenedella for the first time.
Cenedella grew up in Fredonia, about an hour outside of Buffalo. He went to college at Yale, where he majored in political science.
After Yale, according to the book The Intelligent Entrepreneur, which tells the story of three successful Harvard Business School grads, he moved to California and began a career importing and exporting, capitalizing on Japan's interest in American pet food. He turned down Harvard Business School on account of his new company, but lying in a hotel bed in Tokyo one day, decided that even being the king of Japanese pet food wouldn't exactly satisfy his ambitions. So he re-applied to Harvard Business School and ultimately enrolled. After Harvard, he rose to become a senior vice president at the employment site HotJobs.com, before it was sold in 2002.
But the cornerstone of Cenedella's Senate campaign would be his own company, TheLadders.com, an employment site Cenedella founded in 2003 that now counts 270 employees.
"Marc is a populist scientist of employment," reads his bio on the Ladders site, which also says that his "passion in life is jobs," and calls him a "widely recognized thought leader on job search, career management, recruiting and business."
For most of its existence, the site has focused exclusively on high-paying jobs, listing only those that promised to pay in excess of $100,000 per year, before expanding to include all professional jobs in September.
(When I asked Murray whether Cenedella would actually be able to bill himself as a job-creation expert to ordinary voters if his expertise was mostly limited to very high-paying white-collar work, Murray said, "I think when you talk to companies throughout the state and what they need to do to hire, it speaks to every need across the state. Whether you're in Chautauqua, or Suffolk County.")
The site has been a big success, commercially, and had expanded to nearly five million members—who receive a Monday morning email written by Cenedella—with about half a million people finding jobs through the site last year.
But The Ladders has not been without its critics, including some who object to its charging a subscription fee to job-seekers, and some customers who have complained about the service. The Better Business Bureau, until recently, gave the company a grade of "D+," based on 53 complaints, including one that was unresolved.
After I asked Murray about the rating earlier in the week, he said he'd have to get a comment from the company, and then came back and said the company was going to look into it. Shortly after that, the grade became a "B-." As of today, it's "A+," with zero unresolved complaints.
(The Better Business Bureau's rating system has come under scrutiny for doling out favorable grades to those who pay for bureau "accreditation," but The Ladders is not currently accredited, according to the Better Business Bureau's site.)
While most politicians preach about the urgent need to restore American manufacturing, Cenedella, on his personal blog, has mostly shrugged off the decline in domestic production, expressing optimism about the prospects for America as a "white collar nation."
Writing on his blog, Cenedella said the departure of manufacturing has "always been that way."
"[T]he history of work in America is an inexorable, inevitable shift to the work of the mind," Cenedella wrote. "And I, for one, think that’s a good thing. Because the more people we have engaged in medical research, or designing great electronics, or simply making trenchant observations on our internet economy, the better for us. We are a White Collar nation, and our future is very bright."
And, in some cases, Cen
edella sees jobs where others don't, necessarily. He has been bullish about the prospect for job-seekers despite the bad economy, even in the relatively downtrodden areas upstate.
In a Buffalo News interview in December—speaking as "a Western New York native who runs a national job search website" and not, ostensibly, a potential Senate candidate—Cenedella said, "Buffalo tends to have more jobs than people look at. The jobs are there," citing a jobless rate beneath the national average and praising the region for its "hard workers."
"He feels that the potential for jobs throughout New York is tremendous," Murray told me.
Cenedella has mostly avoided specific policy prescriptions in his public comments and blog posts, but he currently sits on the leadership council of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that supports a variety of "pro-growth" fiscal policies, pushing to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, repeal the death tax, and overhaul Social Security to allow for personal retirement accounts for younger workers.
The Club for Growth coined the RINO Watch, to guard the party against "Republicans In Name Only," and has pushed conservative primary challengers on Republicans it believes to be too moderate in their economic policies. Earlier this year, it broke with the House leadership over what the group saw as insignificant spending cuts in the debt ceiling deal, urging Speaker John Boehner to negotiate a Balanced Budget Amendment.
Cenedella has donated to several of the club's favorite candidates over the years, like New Jersey congressman Scott Garrett, South Carolina senator Jim Demint and former New Hampshire senator John Sununu. In 2007, Cenedella gave $1,000 to Ron Paul's presidential campaign.
"He's been supporting Republican candidates throughout the country for years," Murray said.
For the New York G.O.P., the hope is that this year could be like 1980, when Al D'Amato emerged from relative obscurity to beat the longtime liberal-Republican senator Jacob Javits in a primary. On Thursday morning, at a meeting of Republican county chairs in Albany, state chairman Ed Cox invoked D'Amato, who once stabbed a "Taxasaurus Rex" with a pencil on the floor of the Senate, as an example of what could transpire this year, with either of the two "highly qualified" candidates who are interested in running.
D'Amato lost to Chuck Schumer in 1998, and no Republican has come anywhere near winning a Senate election in New York since then. The last Republican who won a statewide election in New York is former governor George Pataki, who won re-election to his third and final term in 2002.
Cenedella has yet to file for a campaign account or even an exploratory committee, but sources familiar with what he's up to say he has begun taking steps within The Ladders that would allow him to step aside and pursue a campaign full-time.
"I think he's at this stage in his career where he wants to make an impact," said Isaacs, the Manhattan chairman.