Replacing Clinton Defines the Parlor Game

Posted December 1, 2008 at 1:06pm

Updated: 3:30 p.m.

When a Senate appointment is left in the hands of one person — like New York Gov. David Paterson (D), who will choose Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D) successor assuming she is confirmed as secretary of State — speculation about the vacancy can be maddening.

Every political insider has an opinion and a favorite. But very rarely do they speak from any base of real knowledge. Until Paterson actually makes a selection, the conversation about the appointment is speculation of the crudest sort — and nothing more.

Still, Paterson has dropped a few hints along the way. And it’s useful to take a look at the recent past of New York politics — and its short-term future — to develop a few scenarios.

The names of at least 10 House Members have circulated in recent weeks in connection with the Senate appointment. The list of possible appointees also includes state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D), Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (D), Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion (D), environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Clinton’s former Senate counsel Leecia Eve.

How many of these people are Paterson actively considering? The governor has said he’d give priority to a woman, a Latino or someone who hails from upstate. He has also lamented that no single person is all three.

Left unsaid is Paterson’s own political self-interest. The man who ascended to the governorship in March after his predecessor’s involvement in a sex scandal plans to run for a full four-year term in 2010, and the state of his own political health, especially in such a dire economy, is a big unknown. Paterson will be on the statewide ballot along with Sen. Charles Schumer (D), who is heavily favored to win a third term, Clinton’s successor and the Democratic nominees for lieutenant governor, attorney general and state comptroller.

Paterson’s deliberations come as New York’s Republican Party is at one of its lowest ebbs. At this point, save for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, there are no obvious strong GOP contenders for any statewide office.

Any New York gubernatorial candidate wants to run on a ticket that’s as balanced as possible when it comes to race, ethnicity, gender, geography and ideology. He also wants running mates who are politically strong and robust fundraisers.

Paterson, Schumer and Cuomo — who would be running for a second term as attorney general assuming he isn’t appointed to the Senate or challenging Paterson in the Democratic gubernatorial primary — make a balanced ticket ethnically, but all three hail from New York City. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (D) is from Long Island. Clinton calls the Westchester County suburbs north of New York City home. And there currently is no lieutenant governor and won’t be until after the 2010 elections — meaning there is no statewide officeholder from upstate.

Another intriguing consideration is the fact that like Paterson, DiNapoli came to office in the wake of a scandal involving his predecessor. He was appointed comptroller by the Legislature in early 2007. So DiNapoli, a former state assemblyman, has never won anything bigger than a state Assembly race on his own.

Paterson, other than winning a statewide Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, has never won anything bigger than a state Senate seat — because as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006, he was paired with the then-gubernatorial nominee, Eliot Spitzer (D), who won in a landslide. Assuming Clinton is confirmed as secretary of State, her successor also will be unelected.

To some Cuomo partisans, that puts Cuomo at the head of any list for the Senate appointment. At least he has won statewide office, they argue, and lends a certain amount of gravitas to the Democratic ticket in 2010. But Cuomo dreams of being governor — as his father once was — so a Senate appointment may not be in his best interests. And Schumer is said to be lukewarm to the idea of sharing the spotlight with Cuomo on Capitol Hill.

Who among the names mentioned as possible Senate appointees meet Paterson’s publicly stated criteria?

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D) and Carrion are Hispanic. Velázquez, Eve and Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), Carolyn Maloney (D) and Louise Slaughter (D) are women. However, Slaughter is 79 and presumably wouldn’t be able to accrue much seniority in the Senate.

Both Slaughter and Gillibrand are from upstate. Slaughter is from Rochester, and Gillibrand is from the Albany area. Gillibrand turns 42 next week, and in addition to proving herself as a stellar fundraiser, she is seen as having an extremely bright political future.

Another Congressman who has been mentioned as a possible Senate appointee, Rep. Brian Higgins (D), is Buffalo born and bred. Brown and Eve are also from Buffalo. Eve isn’t well-known to people who aren’t political insiders, but her father has been the leading African-American powerhouse in western New York for more than 30 years, and her brother is a well-respected Empire State Democratic consultant. And she does have the Clinton connection.

But in the end, connections may be what the Clinton appointment comes down to. How’s this for a connection? Suozzi’s father is a law partner with Paterson’s father, former Democratic National Committee Vice Chairman Basil Paterson.

Then there is the question of Gov. Paterson’s political debts. Here’s where things get really interesting.

Way back in 1985, when Paterson was bidding for a state Senate appointment that was essentially going to be doled out by local liberal Democratic activists, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) threw his political heft behind him and not the other leading contender — even though many other leading Upper West Side liberals were for the other guy. Nadler is seen as eager to go to the Senate.

And Eve? In 2006, she was running for lieutenant governor with the backing of Paterson’s powerful political patrons such as his father, as well as Rep. Charlie Rangel (D) and former New York Mayor David Dinkins (D). Only when Spitzer indicated his desire to tap Paterson as his running mate did Paterson enter the race for lieutenant governor — and Eve deferred. So in a sense, it could be argued that Paterson would not be governor today if it were not for Eve.

Ironically, when Paterson became lieutenant governor, it was widely assumed that he’d worked out a deal with Spitzer to be appointed to the Senate if Clinton were elected president in 2008. But fate intervened — and until Paterson says something definitively, the political parlor games will continue.