Let New Yorkers Elect New U.S. Senator in 2010 Like Moynihan, Hillary;
Based on Achievements, Not 2-Year Incumbency
With Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State regarded as both assured and imminent, the mini-drama that has accompanied the succession to her seat, held by Daniel Patrick Moynihan for 24 years, will come to a close.
Governor Paterson is poised to appoint Caroline Kennedy to the position, which will be first major result of the Bloomberg-Paterson alliance, a union of unequals, based on incumbency and mutual ambition. We cannot say mutual admiration because we don’t know what the allies really think of each other, but for practical purposes that doesn’t matter. In this business, private beliefs have little to do with public actions. In fact, in certain circles it is cooler when they conflict, since that shows one is willing not to act on personal feelings in order to serve the greater good, the expansion and preservation of one’s personal empire.
Wayne Barrett has written an article in today’s Village Voice that deserves more attention than it will receive. The title is WHO’S CAROLINE’S DADDY? BLOOMBERG MANEUVERS TO CROWN A KENNEDY. It is undeniable that the mayor and chancellor Joel Klein are strong supporters of Ms. Kennedy, and that Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey’s phone calls on her behalf came very early in the race. Their efforts antagonized Speaker Sheldon Silver, who did not believe that Bloomberg’s network of upstate mayors was the key to power in the Democratic Party. He saw the Assembly, which now contains 109 elected Democrats (out of 150 seats), as deserving of consultation. Speaker Silver once spoke negatively of Ms. Kennedy, but days later said he would support anyone the governor appointed.
Although the Speaker has the power (through his dominant position in the legislature) to fill vacancies in the office of State Comptroller and Attorney General, it is the Governor who fills Senate vacancies and chooses judges and the chief judge of the Court of Appeals from seven nominees selected by a panel. Paterson pleased Speaker Silver yesterday by appointing Jonathan Lippman as chief judge to fill the vacancy caused by Chief Judge Judith Kaye’s mandatory retirement at age 70. Federal judges are not obliged to retire at any age, but may take senior status at the age of 65 if they have served 15 years on the bench. Senior status provides a reduced caseload at full salary, modest as it may be.
Justice Lippman, who has spent his entire 40-year career in the state court system, was recommended by Chief Judge Kaye. He is principally known for his work in court administration and judicial reform, not becoming a judge until Governor Pataki appointed him to the Court of Claims in 1995. His childhood friendship with Speaker Silver did not preclude his appointment; one hopes the people Lippman appoints will be selected on the merits and not on the basis of political recommendations.
If Paterson does not appoint Ms. Kennedy, he would be criticized for leading her through the charade of visiting clubs and leaders to seek their support. It is also difficult for the less important, or the accidentally important, to resist requests from people who are more important than they are, and have been so since they were children. How could our humble governor resist the opportunity to choose one of America’s royalty, and have her thereafter indebted to him? Since she would come up for election in 2010, she is likely to go to the polls at that time. Paterson will be on the ballot seeking a full term, unless Andrew Cuomo, whom he will have passed over for the senate seat, defeats him in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Andrew indicated his ambition in 2002 when he ran for governor, the office his father, Mario, had held for three terms, from 1983 to 1994. The son withdrew in 2002, abandoning the Liberal Party line, and leaving the Democrat, Carl McCall, to be trounced by Governor Pataki.
For Bloomberg to support Ms. Kennedy is not, however, a crime. It is a shrewd political maneuver to neutralize an important Democrat, and to enhance his own relationship with her. Her lack of qualifications, her absence of professional achievement or political participation, do not matter an iota to her sponsors. They would support Bucephalus or Incitatus if it served their purpose. Robert F. Kennedy (elected in 1964), Pat Moynihan (1976) and Hillary Clinton (2000), all of whom graced that Senate seat, were remarkable people who served with distinction. Before they were elected, however, they had records of achievement that made their candidacies not only plausible but highly regarded. Nonetheless, Ms. Kennedy, or anyone, has a right to run, and if the people prefer her to others, so be it. There is the issue that she is being selected by one person, who was never elected himself to the office he now holds. But even if he were, as Eliot Spitzer was, he should not choose a senator to serve for a generation. The appropriate action is to choose a distinguished New Yorker who would not spend two years running for election in 2010, but someone with good judgment who would devote himself or herself to the job, while allowing the people to decide whom they want to elect 2010 to an open seat in a fair match.
New York has an appointed State Comptroller, and an appointed Governor, both candidates for election. Do we need an appointed United States Senator seeking re-election, so that three unelected state-wide officials will be competing as incumbents? What became of the level playing field? This is not a judgment on the way Comptroller DiNapoli and Governor Paterson are doing their jobs. They are ahead of the Legislature in dealing with the fiscal crisis, although that is faint praise. Neither has betrayed his office, either by personal behavior or common crimes. And both vacancies they filled, caused by the forced resignations of Governor Spitzer and Comptroller Hevesi, required immediate successors.
But with so many qualified contenders, many with good records in Congress or other elected office (e.g. Attorney General), why should one person with high visibility and minimal experience or prior interest be selected as the permanent replacement of her iconic predecessors? It is awkward to write about this subject because the situation would be ridiculous if it were not stark reality. It may well be in the interest of Mr. Paterson to attach himself to someone more popular and attractive than he is. A seat in the United States Senate should not, however, be held hostage to one man’s political needs, ambition or fantasies. We do not doubt that, if selected, Ms. Kennedy would be a reasonably competent Senator. She has had great parents, a fine education (Harvard, Columbia Law), and a blameless private life. She has never been embarrassed by her husband or children. She will have a very competent staff; many fine people will want to work for her. And she is not arrogant or mean-spirited.
Would she be a Moynihan or a Hillary? Nothing in her life suggests that level of knowledge, diligence, or ability to persuade others. Her late uncle Robert was elected to the senate seat from New York. If she really wants it, his niece should follow the same route, seeking the seat in 2010. That would afford her time to visit the 62 counties she would represent. The fact is that her accomplishments to date simply do not justify a Senate seat being handed to her on a silver platter, no matter what political advantage that would bring to others. This does not mean that there is a conspiracy to appoint her. Different people, acting for different reasons, may come to the same conclusion. But the fact that it is not a plot does not mean that it is the right thing. New York State deserves the best. It certainly needs it at this time. Is this the best we can do?
Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at StarQuest@nycivic.org. Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.