I have watched, somewhat quietly, over the last four weeks since Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested, the unfolding drama of picking new senators for both New York and Illinois.
As a bit of background, Illinois needs a new senator because Senator Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States (yep, I just like saying that). New York is in this same pickle because President-elect Obama has chosen Senator Hillary Clinton as the new Secretary of State.
Even before the November 4th election, there was great speculation about who would replace Senator Obama should he win. Familiar names including Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan were among the most talked about.
Personally, I hoped that Governor Blagojevich would name someone quickly as that person would have more seniority than the new senators elected November 4th and sworn in on January 6th. Unfortunately, he did not.
As we all now know, Governor Blagojevich is alleged to have tried to sell the senate seat to the highest bidder - the person who would raise $1 million for his own personal campaign fund. And that is what led U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to arrest Blago on December 9, 2008.
Now I'm not going to get into whether Blago is guilty or not. That's ultimately for a court to decide. Certainly, in the Court of Public Opinion, Blago is the most corrupt politician ever and should share a cell with former Governor George Ryan.
Last week, in a move that surprised everyone I know including many politicos, Governor Blagojevich named former 3 term Illinois Comptroller and 1 term Attorney General Roland Burris to fill the vacant senate seat. Immediately, a firestorm erupted with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying he would not seat Mr. Burris. Sure, Mr. Burris lost in his bids to be elected senator against Paul Simon in 1984, mayor of Chicago in 1995 against Mayor for Life Richard M. Daley and multiple runs for Governor, but the fact remains he won 4 terms to statewide office.
Looking at New York's situation, within minutes of Senator Clinton being nominated to be Secretary of State, Caroline Kennedy (of the Hyannis Port Kennedy's) tossed her name into the ring to replace Senator Clinton in a seat once held by her uncle, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. For the most part, the media and the public have loved this. Everyone is very eager for Caroline to breath life back into Camelot and take her seemingly rightful place in the Senate.
But what has Caroline Kennedy done to prove herself worthy of this senate seat? Since I questioned Sarah Palin's qualifications to be Vice President, I feel it would be unfair of me to ignore the fact that other than being a Kennedy, writing some nice books about public service and patriotism, and serving on some boards, Caroline Kennedy has no actual qualifications to be the next Senator from New York. She has never held any elected office, for example. It's recently been revealed that she failed to vote in a number of elections, which is a bit ironic since she claims public service and patriotism are part of her DNA. Obviously, she's over 30, a resident of New York, and a citizen of the United States, which are the only requirements laid out in the Constitution, but many people meet those requirements and remain unqualified to be a Senator.
Aside from the the nostalgia of Camelot, I think the only two things Caroline Kennedy does have, however, is instant name recognition and the ability to raise a significant amount of money to run again in 2010 and, should she win that special election, to run again in 2012 when her seat would normally be up for reelection. She also has the ability to raise a significant amount of money for New York Governor David Patterson in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. He is probably going to need all the help he can get since he wasn't actually elected to his position. Of course, David Patterson is thinking of which candidate will best help his own political aspirations. To suggest he's not would simply by naive.
What I don't understand is how these situations are all that different. Isn't it always understood that politicians help each other out? It seems to me that the only differences between the New York and Illinois situations are that (1) Caroline Kennedy is a Kennedy, (2) no one likes Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and (3) Blago wants his payment upfront and guaranteed, while Patterson will take an IOU. Democratic Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid obviously wants to keep both seats in the Democratic column in 2010 and Roland Burris won't easily win re-election and certainly doesn't have the name recognition to easily raise money. But, at the end of the day, isn't palm greasing palm greasing no matter how or when it's done? Why is one blindly accepted and the other a federal crime?