Rangel Keeps Powder Dry on Senate Choice

Posted December 9, 2008 at 5:16pm

As dozens of scenarios continue to spin out — in private, in public and in print — over who will be appointed to replace Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the Senate if she is confirmed as secretary of State, the dean of New York’s Congressional delegation has a simple piece of advice: Don’t believe anything you hear.

“Anybody who says there is a tilt [in one candidate’s direction or another] is not telling you the truth,” Rep. Charlie Rangel (D) said in an interview Tuesday.

The choice of who will replace Clinton in the Senate rests with one man: New York Gov. David Paterson (D), who has said he is unlikely to name a successor until Clinton is confirmed, presumably in January.

But of all the Empire State political insiders spouting an opinion about the appointment, Rangel’s is probably a cut above the others for at least two reasons. For starters, he was quite instrumental in getting Clinton to run for the Senate in the first place, and said Tuesday that it’s “painful” to contemplate life without her there.

Second — and perhaps more significantly — he is like an uncle to Paterson. Rangel and Paterson’s father, former Democratic National Committee Vice Chairman Basil Paterson, were part of a new generation of political leaders who took control of the Harlem Democratic organization in the late 1960s. That group included David Dinkins, who went on to become New York’s first African-American mayor, and Percy Sutton, who is now a multimillionaire broadcasting mogul.

Rangel, along with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), met with the governor over the weekend to discuss Clinton’s Senate seat.

“No one [candidate came] to anybody’s immediate mind,” Rangel said. But Paterson did tell the Members he would not appoint anyone to the post who hasn’t explicitly expressed an interest in being Senator.

The Congressman said he has also had “several” other conversations with Paterson about the vacancy. The discussions “never got into personalities at all,” Rangel said. “He’s still entertaining all the things that are necessary — ability to win upstate, diversity, ability to raise money.”

Several names are circulating as possible Senate appointees: from megastars such as Caroline Kennedy and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to junior House Members such as Kirsten Gillibrand (D) and Brian Higgins (D). Also mentioned: Meeks, Reps. Steve Israel (D), Carolyn Maloney (D), Jerrold Nadler (D) and Nydia Velázquez (D), Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (D), and Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi (D). And on Tuesday, a new candidate emerged: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who told the New York Daily News that she has spoken to Paterson about her interest.

Weingarten is the second potential candidate with ties to Paterson’s father. Basil Paterson has done legal work for Weingarten’s union; Suozzi’s father and the elder Paterson are law partners.

The Public Policy Institute on Tuesday released a poll showing, not surprisingly, that New York Democrats favor the two best-known potential Clinton successors for the Senate appointment, Kennedy and Cuomo. In an automated poll of 957 registered Democrats taken Monday and Tuesday, 44 percent said they wanted Kennedy to get the appointment, followed by Cuomo at 23 percent. Gillibrand was preferred by 6 percent, followed by Higgins at 5 percent, Velázquez at 4 percent, and Maloney, Suozzi and Brown at 3 percent each.

Asked for a second choice, 35 percent said Cuomo, 24 percent said Kennedy and 9 percent said Maloney. The poll had a 3.2-point margin of error.

Whoever is appointed will be on the statewide Democratic ticket with Paterson in 2010. Paterson needs Clinton’s replacement to be strong politically — and vice-versa.

So while the poll may not have made Paterson’s job any easier, it could provide some comfort: His numbers are strong among registered Democrats, and New York Democrats seem to like both Kennedy and Cuomo.

“The good news for David Paterson is that both of them are very popular with the Democratic base, and he really couldn’t go wrong by appointing either one of them,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling.

Rangel said he believes that all of his House colleagues who have been mentioned as would-be Senators are sincere in their desire to succeed Clinton.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, to be appointed to the Senate without having to campaign,” he said.

Rangel also said he would not take sides publicly.

“We’ve got a great delegation, a highly qualified delegation,” he said.

Some Members are campaigning to one degree or another. Maloney, for example, won the backing of key women’s groups last week. And this week she reportedly hired Bill Lynch, a top Democratic strategist who used to be Dinkins’ right-hand man and is close to Harlem politicians like the governor, to advise her as Paterson ponders Clinton’s replacement.

Asked about the possible appointment of Kennedy, whose apparent interest in the job has Democratic hearts fluttering from coast to coast, Rangel said, “It’s a sensational name of a great lady, and she can finance a campaign. But I don’t know her that well. I haven’t had many one-to-one discussions with her.”

Rangel held out the possibility that he might eventually have a preferred candidate before Paterson makes an appointment — but said he wants to watch what develops in the next few weeks before sharing his opinion with the governor.

“We’re talking about a month from now,” he said. “That’s a long time.”