Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Democrats Confuse Me–And I’m a Democrat!

Political junkie that I am, I can’t resist commenting on the soap opera that has become the post-election races and appointments to the U.S. Senate–where my own party, the Democrats, are puzzling me more than the Republicans.

First, the post-election decisions that are finished and now look fairly straightforward, however, drama-filled they seemed at the time.

  • Alaska: It seemed as if Alaskans had defied all the polls (actually, they still did this in patterns that are still difficult to understand) and returned convicted Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) to office, even though he was almost sure to be removed from office by the Senate and, pending appeals, is facing some major jail time.  But the election was too close to call on election night.   When the dust settled about 2 weeks later, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D-AK) was actually the winner.  He will be sworn in next Tuesday when the 111th Congress first convenes. This will mark the first time Alaska has had a Democratic U.S. Senator since January of 1981.
  • Georgia:  This also seems rather straightforward, now.  GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) had narrowly defeated Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA) in 2002 by running ads that claimed Cleland was “soft on terrorism” and which morphed Cleland’s face into that of Osama bin Laden–This despite the fact that Chambliss had received numerous deferments from the military draft while Cleland had volunteered and lost 3 limbs in Vietnam! So, finding Chambliss vulnerable, Democrats tried to target him heavily for defeat–but a crowded primary field and a late (July) primary and the failure to recruit some of the strongest Democratic flag bearers led to a run-off in August. The winner, Dale Jim Martin [must proofread better[, was not a strong candidate and did not have enough real time to mount a general election race against Cleland, but, with the aid of a libertarian 3rd party candidate, kept Chambliss from 50% on election night–which, in GA law triggered a run-off.  Run-off elections are notoriously low in turnout and without Obama’s name on the ticket to bring new voters and African-Americans back to the polls (and with the GOP pulling out all the stops), Chambliss won the run-off and kept the Dems from a 60-seat filibuster proof majority.  The confusing thing here is why Democrats were unable to recruit a stronger candidate. Civil Rights hero, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) of Atlanta could have cleared the primary field, giving him a much longer time to campaign statewide. If he had not defeated Chambliss directly on election night and, like Martin, required a run-off, he would have had a much stronger chance of getting African-Americans and first-time voters to return to the polls–but I think he would have beaten Chambliss outright.  He would probably have campaigned for months all over rural GA with Max Cleland by his side.  This was a huge missed opportunity for Dems. I hope they don’t repeat it in ’10 when GA’s Johnny Isakson (R-GA) is up for reelection. He’s also polling in the vulnerable range and GA is slowly turning more Democratic–but the Democratic bench in GA is VERY slim. The only chance they have is for a strong candidate, no real primary challenge, and the ability to campaign strong for months. (It would also help if GA’s conditions improve under the new president!)

Then there’s the election recount that won’t end:

Minnesota: Comedian turned political commentator Al Franken (D-MN) is now leading incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) by 50 votes, and even most conservatives admit that the remaining ballots–absentee ballots which were dismissed in error because of some clerical screw up–probably favor Franken more than Coleman.  /UPDATE: The canvassing board finished its work today and Franken wins by 225! MN law won’t allow certification for 7 days, so Franken can only be “provisionally seated” until then and until Coleman’s legal challenges are met. The GOP is threatening to block this even though there is ample precedent.  Coleman should concede. He lost. Franken needs to start working now to convince the people of MN that he can actually do the job. Both Franken and Coleman ran horrible campaigns (hence this drawn out recount), but the nastiness throughout the recount has been all on Coleman’s side. The real winner has been Sec. of State Mark Ritchie and the people of the canvassing board for a thorough and very transparent recount. Well done, MN./ Coleman’s senate term is officially up today.  The MN canvassing board will probably certify a winner by early next week. But in a race this close, there can be legal challenges and Coleman probably will file them (already has numerous times), even though the MN Supreme Court keeps rejecting his claims.  Also, Coleman is under FBI investigation for several scandals and could soon be indicted. The Republicans in the U.S. Senate say they won’t seat Franken until all the court challenges are down–which could take weeks or even months–time that Democrats could use Franken’s vote.  But here’s the part where my own party puzzles me: Why did the Democratic-Famer-Labor Party (as it is known in MN) choose Franken as its standard bearer in the first place? Democrats knew how vulnerable Coleman was and knew they needed this seat. Franken was NOT the strongest candidate. Minnesotans have essentially said they don’t like either choice (although, in post-election recount strategies Coleman is alienating more in Minnesota and turning the public to Franken).  With nearly ANY of the other DFA candidates, Coleman would have lost decisively on election day and this problem would not exist. So, why did they go with Franken??? (I have nothing against Al Franken. I enjoyed him as a comic.   I like his satirical books on politics. I loved his show on Air America Radio.  But, in general, I think celebrities turned politicians are a bad idea–and Minnesotans had enough of that with pro-wrestler Jesse-the Body-Ventura becoming governor several years ago.)

Then there’s the Senate vacancies caused by the victories of Obama/Biden (both were U.S. Senators) and two of Obama’s picks for his cabinet (Sen. Hillary Clinton(D-NY) as Sec. of State and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) as Sec. of the Interior).  In most states filling an unexpected Senate vacancy is the sole prerogative of the state’s governor, until the next election cycle. I’d like to see a Constitutional amendment so that such vacancies would necessitate a special election to be filled.

  • Illinois:  Through no fault of Obama’s, the IL Gov. is a crook who, already under federal and state investigation for other things (4 of the last 5  oops! that shou ld be 4 of the last 8!–IL governors have done jail time–and coming from both parties!), was caught on tape trying to auction off Obama’s senate seat for money, help with his plans for reelection, a cabinet post, a high-paying job for him or his wife, etc.  He is due to be impeached next week by the IL state legislature and will probably removed from office shortly thereafter by the state senate–while he awaits indictment and trial.  But, meanwhile, the gov. has defied everyone and appointed a replacement anyway–former State Atty. Gen. Roland Burris (D-IL), who has repeatedly failed at running for higher office, but at least has successfully run a statewide election.  But since the selection is tainted by the governor, U.S. Senate Democrats are vowing not to seat Mr. Burris–even though they need his vote and probably don’t have the legal standing to deny Burris his seat. Their only real hope is that they can delay until the governor is removed from office, let his Lt. Gov. rescind Burris’ appointment and appoint someone else before the current appointment is certified.  And, it had better be a strong appointee, because whoever it is will have to stand for election ’10 when Obama’s term was up and Republicans smell blood over this issue–even in heavily Democratic IL.  (Fortunately, the GOP bench in IL is weak, but Mark Kirk will be a strong candidate for them if he runs.) Here my question is: Why did the IL Legislature, which is Democratically controlled,  drag its feet? If they had acted quickly and impeached Gov. Blagojevich, or had passed legislation that called for a special election (if the Gov. had signed it), a non-tainted person would now be in Obama’s seat and ready to work for the people of IL and run in ’10.
  • Delaware: The least problematic case.  Sen. Joe Biden (now the Vice President-elect) ran for reelection as senator while running for VP–and won both.  He wanted the DE governor to appoint his son, DE’s State Atty. Gen, Beau Biden, to his seat. But Beau is in the Army Reserves as a military attorney and his unit was called up for duty in Iraq. So, the Biden nepotistic desire convinced the Gov. to appoint a “caretaker,” i.e., an unknown who will not try to run in his own right in ’10. In ’10  presumably Beau Biden, back from Iraq, will run for the seat.  But a caretaker leaves this seat open to GOP takeover in ’10. Not greatly vulnerable since Delaware is so very Democratic, but this was still a weak choice, in my opinion. And I don’t like nepotism or legacy appointments and am suspicious of political dynasties–even when they are ones I like such as the Kennedys or Udalls.  Much more nepotism in the Senate and we might as well just call it the House of Lords and be done with it!
  • New York: By Obama naming his former rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) to be Secretary of State, this seat comes open.  Governor David Patterson (D-NY) has said that he will not name a replacement until Sen. Clinton is confirmed as Sec. of State (and she will not resign her seat until then, either). (Unlike parliamentary systems, where cabinet posts are filled by sitting MPs, in the U.S. system one cannot be part of the Executive Branch as a cabinet member and simultaneously part of the Legislative Branch as a Senator or member of the House of Representatives.  We have “separation of powers” of government which is supposed to act as “checks and balances” on any 1 person or branch of government becoming too strong.) N0 one knows whom Gov. Patterson is going to appoint, but rumors persist that Caroline Kennedy (Schlossberg), daughter of slain President John F. Kennedy, is on the top of his shortlist.  Again, if this is true, why? Ms. Kennedy is a great person who is an attorney and does much good with many charities and helped raise money for the beleagured public schools of NYC.  But she has never held elected office, nor even run for one. If appointed, she will have to run in a special election in ’10 and, since Clinton’s term is up in ’12, again in ’12.  Senate races are expensive and difficult. The Kennedy name will enable her to raise money, but can she run and keep this seat back-to-back?  Wouldn’t Gov. Patterson be better off appointing someone like Rep. Carol Moloney (D-NY) or Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) to the seat– and backing Ms. Kennedy for their vacated House seats in a special election?
  • Colorado:  It looked like this one was going to be less drama–until today.  Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO), a former environmental lawyer, was Obama’s pick for Secretary of the Interior. (Not a bad choice, though not the favorite of environmentalists for that job. I was pulling for Rep. Raul Grijalva of AZ, an amazing progressive on both the environment and immigration issues–both of which are covered by the Sec. of Interior job.) Gov. Ritter was looking over several highly qualified and well-known CO Democrats–all of whom had good chances of keeping the seat. I was excited that it seemed like Rep. Polly Baca (D-CA) was moving to the head of the list since she’s more progressive than Salazar, but would harness the rural areas and the Latino population behind her.  But, I was not unhappy with the idea of popular Denver Mayor Hickenlooper (D-CO), either. Instead, in a surprise move, Gov. Ritter has appointed today, Michael Bennet (D-CO), the current Superintendent of Denver’s Public Schools–someone virtually unknown to most of Colorado!  Bennet can do a good job: He was chief of staff for Hickenlooper and formerly he worked in the U.S. Dept. of Justice and, briefly for then-OH Gov. Celeste.  He was on Obama’s short list for Secretary of Education.  But he has never held or even run for elected office.  How will he simultaneously learn the ropes of being a U.S. Senator and begin to introduce himself to enough Coloradoans to seek election on his own terms in 2010?

Now, it could be that Democrats keep all 5 of these seats: MN, CO, IL, NY, and DE.  Democrats are currently stronger in each of these states (as well as nationally) than the GOP.  But these puzzling choices by Democratic leaders have made sure that there will be more excitement around these seats than there should have been.  If the GOP has huge recruiting luck and things do not go well for the Obama team in ’09 (the economy will get worse before it gets better, even if he does everything right), then they could make significant Senate gains–in a year that would otherwise be ripe for continued Democratic gains in the Senate. (It is 2012 when Democrats will have to play defense in Senate races–as a result of previous successes. Far more Democratic seats are up for reelection in ’12 than Republican.)

Like I said, Democrats confuse me–and I’m one of them. Sigh.


January 3, 2009 - Posted by | U.S. politics


  1. “4 of the last 5 IL governors have done jail time–and coming from both parties!”

    Not sure where you get your information, but this is definitely incorrect. We’re corrupt in Illinois, but not quite that corrupt. I believe the stat is that, if Blago goes to jail (which of course seems likely), it will be four out of eight governors who will see jail time for crimes committed while holding state office.

    Comment by Kyle | January 4, 2009

  2. I’m confused also, but I can shed a little light on the GA race because it is my own district. I voted for (Jim) Martin and was one of the few who did turn out to vote again in the run-off. This seat was never really up for grabs. GA has been plagued by the notorious process of redrawing districts to favor particular interests. Though I work and own an office building in the downtown Augusta area that elects democrats occasionally, I live and vote in the lily-white, suburban, conveniently redrawn district that Chambliss carried easily in the run-off. This is the county that shares a border with South Carolina and a public lake named after Strom Thurmand.

    Martin was the best choice to try and win that seat. You can’t put a real liberal in that race because there are only 5 of us in that area that would vote for him (that’s counting my wife). You certainly couldn’t put a minority in that race. This is KKK territory (and I’m not kidding). Obama lost heavily in our district so I don’t think it mattered who we ran. There just are not many minority voters or progressive thinkers in this district. Martin is a veteran that had a good run and actually over achieved given the district voter demographic.


    Comment by Mike L. | January 4, 2009

  3. I’m an Illinois Democrat and am equally confused. Most of the IL liberal and progressive blogosphere is chomping on the bit for an expensive special election that could very easily put one of the most lyingist republican congressmen in the Senate, Mark Kirk. Not only are they working hard to keep the mostly unobjectionable, if not exciting, Roland Burris from being seated, they also worked hard to taint the best candidate against Kirk, Jesse Jackson Jr. I can almost understand the public officials who are scrambling to preserve their own careers, but liberal activists are actively working to seat republicans. It’s beyond anything I can explain.

    Comment by Ellen Beth Gill | January 4, 2009

  4. Ellen, are you sure that JJJ is the best candidate against Kirk? I thought that, if appointed, JJJ could win reelection–taking time over the next 2 years to travel downstate enough to make sure that he isn’t confused with his father, but after he was revealed as “candidate 5”–even if not a target of Fitzgerald–wouldn’t this keep him from being able to win outside Chicago? I tend to think that Jan Schakowsky is probably the best candidate against Kirk, now, but since I am not from IL, I could easily be wrong.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 4, 2009

  5. Mike L., if this was a House race, your logic prevails. But since U.S. Senate races are statewide, it seems to me that a stronger candidate could have prevailed against Shameless Chambliss. I do understand about KKK districts: I live in one of the 2 nominally Democratic states (KY and WV) which voted for McCain and bragged to BBC reporters that it was because they’d vote for anyone but a (insert racial slur here)!

    I know about the gerrymandered districts. I have argued that the Georgia Democrats should concentrate heavily on taking back the governor’s mansion, secretary of state, and at least one house of the state legislature so that they can redraw the districts in fairer ways after the census in 2010. This is crucial because Georgia looks to pick up at least one House district due to population increase–and they need fairly drawn districts if Dems are to have ANY chance at making House gains.

    Georgia IS moving Democratic (Obama only lost by 5% and made McCain campaign hard there), but at a slower rate than Virginia, North Carolina, or Florida. Redistricting is the key to winning here on the House level. Better candidate recruiting and earlier and less crowded primaries seem to be key to winning the Senate.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 4, 2009

  6. Great points that I didn’t even think about!

    Comment by Mike L. | January 4, 2009

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: