Friday, August 21, 2009

Will Feingold call out Senator Kennedy?

Will Senator Russ Feingold criticize fellow Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy for wanting his possible replacement to be appointed by the governor rather than elected by the people of Massachusetts?

Massachusetts law currently requires a special election to fill senate vacancies, a law pushed through in 2004 when Senator John Kerry was running for president and Republican Mitt Romney was governor. Kennedy was in favor of change in 2004, but now claims to fear Massachusetts will not have adequate representation if the state stays with the special election process. Ed Morrissey has the story. The Wall Street Journal weighs in, too:

Beacon Hill has long sported heavy Democratic majorities, so the state legislature has the votes to grant Mr. Kennedy's wish. But does it have the chutzpah? An election is the more democratic option. After witnessing recent attempts by incompetent Governors in Illinois and New York to fill Senate vacancies, Massachusetts voters may have soured on such appointments. Especially when Mr. Kennedy's motivation for changing the law is so obviously born of partisan interest, not principle.

Earlier this year Senator Feingold announced support for a constitutional amendment that would require the states to hold special elections. The amendment passed on a 5-3 vote in a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Consitution and has gained the bipartisan support of Senator John McCain and Senator Dick Durbin. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner is also a supporter.

Kevin Binversie addresses the issue at his blog, Lakeshore Laments:

Kennedy is no doubt creating another scenario in which the Massachusetts Senate seat will have another "Seat-Warmer" until the Kennedy-family approved candidate -- likely Ted's own wife Victoria -- can win the seat in the 2010 or 2012 election.

The reason why I raise this question is that Feingold is notorious for not letting his pet-projects die, let alone get railroaded in the process. Is Russ Feingold -- a notorious caucus bickerer -- going to just let Ted Kennedy's own personal demands that his Senate seat become some sort of "family heirloom" only he can pick and choose should fill it?

Who knows, but this was one heck of a floor speech by Feingold in February. Hate to see it go to waste.

On January 29th of this year I wrote a column for the Waukesha Freeman in support of Feingold's amendment and explained some of the issues behind it:

Let's vote
In keeping with Democratic principles,voters should choose who fills Senate vacancies

By JAMES WIGDERSON January 29, 2009

Sen. Russ Feingold took a moment from his usual preening before the cameras to actually address a serious issue in a thoughtful way. Feingold has proposed amending the Constitution to require special elections to fill Senate vacancies.
Feingold’s proposed amendment is not without precedent. Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette led the fight for direct election of senators. Prior to 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures. The 17th Amendment changed that but, unfortunately, left the process for filling midterm vacancies to the states.

Feingold’s amendment is in seeming response to the recent controversies over Senate appointments.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is facing impeachment for allegedly attempting to sell the Senate seat formerly held by President Obama. Had Feingold’s fellow Democrats been less desperate to hold the seat, the Illinois legislature could have passed a law to elect Obama’s replacement. Instead the Democrats received a lesson in Chicago politics when Roland Burris was appointed and swept aside any opposition in Washington, D.C.

In New York, Caroline Kennedy made a shambles of the appointment process by pursuing the seat without any qualifications other than her family money and name. Eventually Gov. David Paterson made a purely political appointment by selecting another relatively inexperienced candidate from a strategically important part of the state, Kirsten Gillibrand. In a special election it would have been very unlikely Gillibrand would have survived her party’s primary.

They are not the only unelected senators to serve in this congress. In Delaware, Ted Kaufman was appointed to fill Vice President Joe Biden’s seat for two years until Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, can run for the seat. In Colorado, the Democratic governor appointed Denver School Superintendent Michael Bennet despite never holding elective office.

The Senate may survive having four unelected members, but do we really want four senators the voters would never have chosen in the first place?

The Senate has had interesting appointments before. In Missouri in 2000, Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash during a campaign against incumbent John Ashcroft. When his name could not be taken off the ballot, the Democratic governor played on the public grief and promised to appoint Carnahan’s wife Jean. Ashcroft lost, and then Jean Carnahan lost in a special election two years later.

Alaskan politics were dramatic before Sarah Palin became governor. When Frank Murkowski left the Senate to become Alaska’s governor in 2002, he appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to replace him. While she earned re-election two years later, her father lost in the Republican primary to Palin. This is not to say the voters are incapable of making mistakes. Right now in Minnesota, unfunny comedian Al Franken is slightly ahead over incumbent Norm Coleman in a recount battle. No governor would ever have appointed someone like Franken.

But letting voters choose replacement senators in a special election rather than letting the governors decide is consistent with our principles and our experience.

With special elections we need not fear whether someone has paid a price to obtain a seat in the Senate. Whether that price is gold or political support or even political cover, the real cost is the public’s confidence.

Special elections also leave it to the public to decide whether the name of their next representative in the Senate is sufficient recommendation. Whether the name is Kennedy, Biden, Murkowski or Carnahan, surely it would be better for the public to choose whether dynastic succession is appropriate.

The federal Constitution is unlike the state constitution. As a founding document we should be loath to alter it. But this is not a substantial change and it is consistent with the previous amendment requiring the popular election of senators.

Some will cite the long process as a reason to abandon the effort, and others will cite the worst disaster scenarios. Neither are sufficient excuses to prevent this necessary reform. If we cannot trust the public to fill vacancies as they occur, why are we entrusting them with the election of senators at all?

Now if we could only get Senator Feingold as enthusiastic about the First Amendment to the Constitution as he is about the 17th.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)