Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kirsten Kapers

Gov. David Paterson’s choice of Kirsten Gillibrand to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton may turn out to be a mis-step, politically, but not for the reasons touted by New York City (and hence national) news media mavens.

Commentators in the Press and on the Tube have suggested that the governor fumbled procedurally, made a choice that came as a shock, dumped and dissed the best candidate(s), put his own political needs ahead of the State’s needs (but miscalculated), spurned the preference of the Clintons and the President, and bestowed high office on a person whose “conservative” record offends the sensibilities of civilized New Yorkers.

Those assertions vary. They are counter-factual, presumptuous or/and implausible.

For sound political reasons, Governor Paterson sought to appoint a candidate who, in addition to being eminently qualified by experience and stature, would broaden the sociological representativeness of his party’s office-holders. As reported persistently in the news media, his ideal appointee would have been a well-credentialed person who also is female, is Hispanic, and is from up-State.

Nobody passed those four tests. Ms Gillibrand alone met three. Although she is almost a rookie politically, and thus seems short on experience and stature, she has proved to be an extraordinarily effective vote-getter. She has won two successive Congressional up-State elections, by increasing margins, in Republican territory. She has won not only against a bibulous, feckless incumbent (and the Botch Administration) but also against a wealthy, personable Republican (who was indirectly encumbered by the Botch Administration).

Caroline Kennedy, as the daughter of a martyred hero, brought to the table a special kind of stature. She also brought a record of earnest involvement (from her Park Avenue base) in good causes. But her history, including her December-January performance, gave every indication that for the rigors of self-exposure, appearances, staff management, policy analysis, bargaining, listening, speech-making—in short, of politics, much less of politics at an elevated level—she was not ready.

Andrew Cuomo, while being richly endowed with appropriate experience and stature, did not pass the gender, ethnicity and geo-political tests. His appointment would not have served to broaden the appeal of Governor Paterson’s party. What is more, his appointment would have been a snub to Ms Kennedy in a way that the appointment of Ms Gillibrand was not.

Nevertheless, Governor Paterson’s choice could turn out to be, for the Democrats, expensive.

One possible cost would be loss of the Senate seat. Ms Gillibrand’s senatorial appointment runs through 2010. To retain the seat she must then win the Democratic primary election in September and the general election in November (and then do it all again in 2012). She is likely to encounter opposition in the primary. The challenger(s) will assail her Congressional record as a “conservative” Blue Dog Democrat on gun control, the rights of illegal immigrants, and economic stimulus measures. She will try to blunt this internal opposition by way of her conduct in 2009-10 and an accumulation of endorsements. Although she would likely win the primary election, an exceedingly bitter, divisive battle could pave the way for a general election victory for the Republican nominee.

Another cost of the Gillibrand senatorial appointment, from the Democratic standpoint, could be loss of her erstwhile House seat. That could happen soon, in the special election that will take place in March or April. It could be momentous politically. As the nation’s first inter-party contest since the Obama-led Democratic triumph of November, it could be interpreted as evidence of Republican revival. It would surely be interpreted that way by Republican leaders, no matter what the Democrats say, however credibly, about special circumstances. Accordingly, this by-election will attract big investments by national campaign committees along with immense national publicity.

The risk of loss for the Democrats is serious. While Ms Gillibrand won it in November by a comfortable margin (61%), the seat had been held easily by Republicans before 2006. In registered voters the district is preponderantly Republican. Most of the State Senators, State Assembly members and county legislators who represent pieces of the district--four counties and portions of six other counties--are Republicans. Consequently, many Republicans possess the credentials that go with being a plausible, viable, fund-worthy candidate for election to the United States Congress. The same is not true for the Democrats.

That contrast in credentialed prospective candidates was made evident yesterday (Tuesday, 1/27), at a meeting of the ten Republican chairmen who are authorized legally to decide who shall be their standard-bearer in the special election (whose date remains to be determined). Among the candidates they considered were a former State official and State party chairman, who had been Ms Gillibrand’s challenger last November; a former leader of the Republican minority in the State Assembly, who also had formerly been the Republican nominee for Governor and for State Comptroller; a sitting State Senator; and the current leader of Republicans in the State Assembly. They chose the latter candidate: Jim Tedisco (whose Schenectady residence is just outside the the 20th Congressional district’s boundaries).

Similar backgrounds on the Democratic side do not exist. Within the precincts of the 20th Congressional District, the only State legislator who is not a Republican is independent. That legislator (formally, an Independence Party member) is Assemblyman Tim Gordon, whose district occupies portions of Albany, Columbia, Rensselaer and Greene counties. Mr Gordon, elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2008, caucuses with Assembly’s Democrats. He has voiced interest in running for Congress in the special election as the Democratic nominee.

So have at least 20 other individuals. Among them are a county legislator or two, a county party chairman, a town supervisor, lawyers, and persons who have been active as campaign volunteers. (Among GreeneLanders who have been mentioned in dispatches are Alexander Betke, who is Coxsackie town supervisor and Catskill Village attorney, and Carol Schrager of Hunter, an attorney who practices mostly in Manhattan--as Kirsten Gillibrand did before her 2006 campaign).

Responsible for picking the Democratic nominee are the ten people who chair Democratic committees in the four counties and the portions of six counties that make up New York’s 20th Congressional district. The group’s members (including GreeneLand’s Tom Poelker of Windham) are currently receiving and processing applications. By means of conference calls, we understand, they will try to compile by this Saturday an agreed short list of candidates for interview and vetting.

For making the final nominating decision, their votes are not equal. Party rules, as recognized by State law, prescribe that the deciders’ votes on choosing their special election candidate shall be weighted in proportion to numbers of popular votes received in their bailiwicks by the party's candidate in the last gubernatorial election. (Republican Party rules also prescribe weighted voting as between counties, but the formula is different). In practical terms, this system gives about a third of the decision-making power to the party chairman from populous Saratoga County. The Democratic conferees, we understand, will try to forestall ill feelings that could arise from their inequality of power by reaching a decision that is unanimous.

The Democratic and Republican nominees will contest a popular election whose date remains to be chosen by Governor Paterson. The date must be no fewer than 30 and no more than 40 days after the governor proclaims that an elective office has become vacant. As to when he must issue that proclamation, Mr Paterson seems to be at liberty.

Perhaps he will try to link the special election with regular local elections. For GreeneLand, the preferred date then would be March 18 (Athens, Cairo, Hunter, and Tannersville Village elections) or March 31(Catskill Village election). Such a linkage would help to boost voter turnout. It also would achieve a small reduction in the enormous cost to the taxpayers of replacing Senator Gillibrand in the U.S. House of Representatives.