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"My whole life I was introduced as someone else," Anthony Kennedy Shriver quipped to the well-heeled crowd before him at a Toronto benefit dinner this past fall for his Best Buddies foundation. "I grew up the nephew of President Kennedy. Then I was the nephew of Senator Kennedy. Then I was the son of Sargent Shriver," he continued wryly. "Now I'm the brother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, I have good news for you all: I continue to be a Democrat. I'mnot a Republican!"
As comforting as that declaration might be to long-time admirers of the Kennedy clan, it's even more reassuring to Democratic Party officials. Shriver, who has called Miami Beach home since 1992, is increasingly looking like the Democrats' best chance for taking Florida's gubernatorial seat from the term-limited Jeb Bush in 2006. And though that election might still be nearly two years away, party insiders, desperate for some new blood and fresh faces worthy of the national stage, are already trying to persuade Shriver to commit to running.
It's not hard to see the 39-year-old Shriver's appeal. He has his family's trademark cheekbones, white picket-fence teeth, and tall, commanding presence. Yet his life also maintains a distinctly Miami hue, a South Beach recasting of Camelot. Shriver's Cuba-born wife, former ballerina Alina Mojica, may not possess a Hyannis Port pedigree, but for Democrats eager to woo South Florida's crucial Cuban-exile voters -- not to mention the rest of the state's Hispanics -- she's the stuff of crossover dreams.
Even better, while Shriver's Best Buddies organization (a nonprofit dedicated to mentoring and job-placing those with intellectual disabilities) epitomizes the family tradition of public service, Shriver has shown few qualms about utilizing the Kennedy mystique to reel in a diverse array of star power for fundraising galas. At what other Kennedy function would you find Paris Hilton pressing the flesh with singer Willie Nelson?The downtown Miami headquarters of Best Buddies is a long way from its 1987 origins inside Shriver's Georgetown University dorm room. Today, with a ten-million-dollar annual budget, the organization provides more than five times that amount in volunteer services, matching more than 250,000 intellectually disabled people around the globe with personal "buddies," seeking to transition them out of institutions and into productive lives in the community at large. It's an impressive achievement for anyone, Kennedy or not.
However, Shriver's office hardly downplays his fabled legacy. There's a dash of South Beach gym culture on display -- several large bottles of vitamin supplements sit prominently on his desk -- but practically every inch of wall space is covered with four decades' worth of political mementos. A picture of "Uncle Ted's Historic Camping Trip" (that would be Senator "Uncle Ted" to you) competes for attention with a snapshot of Anthony at the side of Governor Schwarzenegger during his inauguration. A framed July 1963 Time cover of Shriver's father Sargent, touting his newly launched Peace Corps as the face of the Kennedy administration abroad, gazes at a large button from the 1972 presidential race, when Sargent was the Democratic vice presidential candidate alongside George McGovern. "Come Home America," the button pleads.
Given this backdrop, talking politics hardly seems inappropriate. Kulchur goes for broke.
Are you going to run for governor?
Shriver's eyes light up merrily. "Arnold's doing all the work right now," he shoots back with a hearty laugh. But instead of moving on, he launches into an impassioned soliloquy on holding public office. At times it sounds as if he's thinking aloud.
"I don't want to rule out anything," Shriver insists. "It's obviously a great opportunity to serve in a really important job. At some point in my life, if I felt that being in that position would be extremely effective and helpful to people in this state, I would consider it," he stresses, going on at tortured length about the heavy moral responsibilities such a move would entail. "When you talk to Arnold [Schwarzenegger] about why he ran, he really felt that at that point in California, it would make an enormous difference if he was the guy who took that job."
A simple No, I'm not running would have sufficed nicely. But Shriver is just getting started. There's more, much more, on the conflicts he'd feel over leaving Best Buddies under someone else's stewardship, as well as the vicious personal attacks he observed on both Schwarzenegger and his sister Maria as she hit the hustings with her husband. Yet despite all those impediments, he circles back to the new voices he feels the Democratic Party urgently needs, leadership that must come from younger figures who haven't spent their entire careers shuffling between government agencies and the campaign trail.
It's precisely this sort of Hamlet-esque anguished ambivalence that has Democratic operatives both excited and exasperated, because this isn't the first time Shriver has publicly flirted with a bid for office. In 1997 he weighed a run for Miami Beach mayor, an opportunity he considered again in 2001 at the behest of figures close to then-departing Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin.
And it's clear the governor's mansion has been on Shriver's mind for some time now. As far back as September, at that Toronto Best Buddies affair, Hollywood director and Miami Beach native Brett Ratner told Kulchur of his conversations on the subject with Shriver during his frequent Beach visits. "There's some stuff in his past that could prevent him from being governor," he cautioned. Then again, Ratner might be confusing his own exploits with Shriver's. "I lost my virginity by saying I was Bobby Kennedy, Jr.," he boasted playfully. "You can't believe how that helped me get girls in bed when I was growing up."