Meritocracy, Anyone? – Part 3

A quick note before I begin. In the last article under this heading, I cited three open Senate seats, in New York, Delaware, and Illinois. After that article was posted, then President-elect Obama named Colorado Senator Ken Salazar as his pick for Secretary of the Interior. Colorado’s governor, Bill Ritter, named Michael Bennett as Salazar’s replacement. They’ve managed, thankfully, to avoid controversy. If only such could be said in the cases of New York and Illinois.

After Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested, accused of trying to sell the seat held by Barack Obama, conventional wisdom had it that his ship was sunk. Not only would Blagojevich not be naming the next Senator from Illinois, he would be impeached and removed from office, and go on trial for corruption. However, as out of touch and megalomaniacal as Blagojevich has been in public since the arrest, he has proven to be a very resilient politician. Considering he rose to prominence in Illinois politics, which spawned the Democratic machine of Chicago and such a public figure as Richard J. Daley, maybe no one should be surprised.

The Illinois legislature found itself unable to take the Senate pick away from the governor, who in turn chose Roland Burris for the seat, a man with a deep, and very self aware, resume in Illinois. Howls of protest were raised from Springfield to Washington D.C.

Roland Burris is exactly the type of man who succeeds in state politics. Nimble, intelligent, and with a larger than average ego, he fits right in with what I like to think of as the triple-A of American politics. Our nation’s statehouses are full of men and women who are extremely proficient at the three things that make a successful politician — the acquisition of funds, the distribution of said funds, and the ability to acquire and protect the power to accomplish those first two tasks. What makes our national politicians different — the Congressmen, Senators, and Presidents — is that a cloak of reverential mysticism surrounds those leaders beholden to the national, rather than a state’s, Constitution. The wheeling and dealing at the top isn’t any different, but the lofty rhetoric hides the slime that coats local and state politicians.

That doesn’t make Roland Burris any less deserving of Obama’s seat, nor does his being the pick of an embattled governor. As a former state Attorney General and Comptroller, his experience is certainly deep enough for the office, so his qualifications are not at issue. Instead, let us focus on the bizarre circus of his entrée to the capital.

The press conference where Governor Blagojevich announced Burris as his pick was a peculiar affair. No one thought Blagojevich would have the stones to name a successor to Obama. Surely, if the folks in Springfield couldn’t get things together in time to take away the governor’s pick, the United States Senate itself, that venerable institution, with such an inflated sense of its own honor and importance, would turn away any pick such an obviously corrupt governor would make. But there was Blagojevich introducing a beaming Roland Burris to the national press. Neither of these men had any doubts about the legitimacy of the announcement. They ignored and discounted the scoffing with an as equal amount of disdain as that directed towards them not just by the national press corps, but by seemingly everyone in the country. There is little exaggeration in that statement. The day of the announcement, the amount of people who thought it would fly could fit comfortably in a very small room.

And that was how things continued to shake out, until Mr. Burris showed up at the Capitol Building on swearing-in day and was turned back into the rain. Before twenty-four hours had passed, doubts began to be raised about the Senate’s ability to turn away legally named members, Burris turned out to be a decent pick, and opposition to the appointment evaporated. The day he arrived in Washington, a solid wall of opposition to his taking his seat, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Roland Burris, however, knew exactly how to play the game. He knew that the ability of the Senate to refuse to seat a new member was legally dubious, and by showing up to be sworn in, he was forcing Senate leadership to make a difficult and very public decision on his status. Roland Burris played the Senate like a cello. He used their fears of embarrassment and open confrontation to secure himself the seat. Had he not shown up and forced United States Senators to stand up and deny him entry, something they clearly did not want to do, he would probably not be a Senator right now.

As for Blagojevich, his impeachment trial in Illinois is underway, and the governor has chosen this as his moment to go on a national public relations tour. Conventional wisdom has him, again, cooked, but after the performance he’s put forth the last month and a half, there’s no telling what will happen.

Now, in New York, things got silly in their own, unique way. No crimes were planned or committed. Instead, ineptness was the culprit. Here, a replacement governor who could hardly claim a mandate was tasked with picking a replacement in the Senate for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Governor David Paterson’s advisers had only one proviso: pick anyone, so long as it does not damage the office. Governor Paterson responded to this dubious, yet sound, advice by drawing out publicly a selection process he obviously wanted kept private. That process has been so amateurish and inept that it has possibly damaged his reelection prospects next year. Here was an opportunity where a governor, given the chance of a lifetime to succeed a morally bankrupt predecessor, could cement his hold on the office and secure his legacy by showing genuine leadership and vision in his pick of a United States Senator.

The governor was coy about who he would choose from the start. He made it clear that he would not name his pick until after Senator Clinton had been confirmed as Secretary of State. This was a poor decision. This left his office flapping in the wind for two months, subject to rampant speculation, leaks, and finally, Caroline Kennedy. The whole dynamic of the Paterson selection changed when Caroline Kennedy announced she wanted the seat held at one time by her uncle, Robert Kennedy. The most recognizable last name in American politics was now involved, a name so powerful that it diminishes the necessary qualifications for the office. Kennedy had an impressive resume in politics, but not representational politics, where relating to constituents is such an important skill. Her attempts at public relations on coming out for the seat were weak, at best, and did more to put Paterson in a corner than did his own silence about the pick. After all, when a Kennedy wants a Senate seat that you control, how do you say no, even if you have doubts? Names are powerful things, and if you rebuff a Kennedy, even casual voters will remember that in the future. So even after it became clear that Paterson did not want to tap Kennedy for the seat, he still didn’t bother to make his thinking any less opaque.

After Clinton was confirmed, Kennedy had had enough, and abruptly withdrew her name from the running in a terse midnight announcement. A clearly relieved Governor Paterson then named Representative Kirsten Gillibrand to the seat, even apologizing during the press conference for making the process so difficult while his aides smeared Caroline Kennedy in a lame attempt at damage control. Gillibrand is a little tested and mostly unknown New York politician. Her views against gun control make her a dubious choice in a state with such a high volume of gun violence, but she has the opportunity to write her own history with her service in the Senate. Governor Paterson wrote his with this pick. To sum up, when it came time to make a tough and very important decision for the future of his state, Governor Paterson waffled and deferred, let damaging speculation run rampant in the press, and finally named someone to the United States Senate who was a virtual unknown outside of her upstate district.

An accused criminal and a bungling governor now account for appointing two members of the upper house of our Legislative Branch. Rhode Island State Representative David Segal, writing this past week in the New York Times, pointed out that since 1913, when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution provided for the direct election of Senators, more than 180 Senators, or nearly a quarter, have been appointed by state governors. This is ridiculous. It is past time to do away with gubernatorial appointments to the Senate unless in the case of extreme circumstances, such as an inability to assemble a quorum. The 17th Amendment gave the vote to the people of the states. They should actually get it.