During a speech at a “homecoming” event for Hillary Clinton last month at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Lt. Governor David Paterson half-jokingly addressed a topic that is normally taboo for public discussion among New York’s elected officials: If Mrs. Clinton moves back to the White House, one from their ranks will replace her in the U.S. Senate.
“Everybody’s moving up,” Mr. Paterson said.
Actually, only one person will be selected by Governor Eliot Spitzer to take Mrs. Clinton’s spot, and one early favorite is Mr. Paterson himself. His acknowledgment of the sub rosa sweepstakes to succeed Mrs. Clinton amounted to a rare moment of candor among the undeclared candidates, all of whom publicly dismiss the subject as presumptuous speculation.
And so it is. As Mrs. Clinton’s rough past couple of weeks have demonstrated, her election is far from a foregone conclusion.
But that hasn’t stopped some of the state’s top officials from privately positioning themselves for the job, nor has it stopped key constituent groups hungry for Senate representation from making their case in an increasingly loud fashion.
“They are talking and maneuvering,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
According to Democratic staffers and insiders with knowledge of private talks, Representative Jerrold Nadler has expressed his interest in the job to Democratic donors, and Representative Carolyn Maloney has been actively raising money for herself and other Democrats to prove her financial viability. Mr. Paterson has acknowledged his interest publicly, answering a question from NY1’s Dominic Carter with the following declaration: “I think that if Katie Couric stepped down from the CBS Evening News and chose you, I think you would go. I think it’s one of the highest achievements in our profession of public service, the United States Senate. I think all of us in government, a lot of us who are in government, would be interested. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that type of enthusiasm.”
For now, though, it’s all so much chatter. Mrs. Clinton may have something of a say in who succeeds her, but officially, Mr. Spitzer’s is the only vote that counts. (If Mrs. Clinton wins the election next year, the governor will appoint someone to fill out the remaining two years of her term.)
As one influential Democratic operative said, “You can kiss the governor’s butt, or you can kiss Hillary’s butt. There’s no other way to campaign.”
So it is worth noting that, as the governor weathers terrible waves of criticism for his missteps in Albany, many of the most likely candidates for the governor’s job have been among his most committed defenders.
“The decision will be the sole discretion of Governor Spitzer,” said Gregory Meeks, whose name is often mentioned for the job. “The people of New York had the wisdom to elect him governor so that he can make the tough decisions, and I’m going to leave that tough decision to him.”
(Christine Anderson, Mr. Spitzer’s spokeswoman, said, “The governor has endorsed Hillary and believes she will be the next president. That said, the election is quite a ways away and the governor has been focused on running the state. He hasn’t spent time or energy thinking about this right now.”)
Whether he’s ready to focus on the matter, Mr. Spitzer is going to be under increasing pressure not only by individuals lobbying for the post but from constituent groups interested in seeing him make a statement with his selection. Race, in particular, will play a role.
“I think there will be legitimate pressure on him to appoint an African-American to replace Hillary should she win,” said Charlie King, who ran last year for attorney general and is now acting executive director of Al Sharpton’s civil rights advocacy group, The National Action Network. “For some people in the African-American community, the question would be the negative: ‘Why not appoint Lt. Governor Paterson or Congressman Meeks, for example. Why wouldn’t you do that?’”
John Sampson, a Democratic state senator who is black, added that the primary criteria for Mr. Spitzer should be that the person be qualified and be capable of withstanding a Republican challenger in 2010. But he added, “It’s going to be historic for an African-American to become the first U.S. senator. You have to consider it.”
Mr. Paterson, Mr. Meeks and Byron Brown, the mayor of Buffalo, were among the names mentioned by Democratic elected officials and operatives as possible black replacement senators.
But none is a perfect candidate: Mr. Paterson is considered undisciplined by many of his fellow Democrats; Mr. Meeks was rebuked recently by the Federal Election Commission for using nearly $17,000 of political funds for personal use, including the hiring of a personal trainer; Mr. Brown is thin on legislative experience.
Mr. Spitzer will also face pressure from Latinos who say that an appointment of a Spanish-speaking official would appropriately reflect the state’s growing Spanish-speaking population. In neighboring New Jersey, that argument played a role in Governor Jon Corzine picking Senator Robert Menendez to succeed him in the Senate.