Rep wants U.S. Senate vacancies filled by election

By Jim Baron
Published February 8th 2009 in The Pawtucket Times

PROVIDENCE — With the twin debacles of gubernatorial appointments of U.S. Senators in Illinois and New York still fresh in the news, Woonsocket state Rep. Chris Fierro wants to see Rhode Island hold special elections to fill Senate vacancies.

Fierro-sponsored legislation to take the appointing power out of the hands of the governor in Rhode Island was heard by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

The freshman lawmaker pointed to what he called the “outright corrupt process” by which Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich attempted to fill the senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama and the “equally flawed process” by which New York Gov. David Paterson filled the seat left open by Sen. Hillary Clinton when she assumed the office of Secretary of State as the rationale for filing his bill.

The process for replacing a senator in his bill, Fierro testified, is identical to the way a vacancy in a congressional seat would be filled.

There would be a special election to fill any vacancy that occurs before July 1 in a regular election year.

If the vacancy occurs after that, the seat will be filled during the  November election that year.
Matthew Sledge of the group Fair Vote RI told the committee that the bill “improves democracy."

“On its face,” Sledge said, “it seems like a good idea to allow governors to make a short, temporary appointment to fill a U.S. Senate seat, but when you realize the 'golden opportunity' -- that's what Gov. Blagojevich called it – for a governor to decide a state's senator, it becomes less of a minor matter.

“In every case, senators should be elected,” Sledge asserted.

Sledge noted that senators have been elected by popular vote since the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913. Prior to that, senators were elected by state legislatures.

The Judiciary Committee voted to hold the bill for further study. A similar bill was introduced in the General Assembly last year, when there was speculation that Sen. Jack Reed could be tapped for a spot in the Obama cabinet, but it did not pass.

Sledge said Fair Vote also supported that measure, but “people didn't see the pressing need for it.”

He said that often happens with election-related bills. “People don't understand the need until some sort of controversy has happened.”

But with the recent scandals in other states, he said, “we can see that is never a good idea to strip away that power from the people to elect a senator and give it to one person.

Sledge said Rhode Island was fortunate in 1999 to get a “very  qualified appointment” when then-Gov. Lincoln Almond selected Lincoln Chafee to succeed his father, Sen. John Chafee, who died in office. Since 1913, he noted, 180 senators have been sworn in after being appointed, about one-quarter of the total of new solons.

Fierro said “it shouldn't be one man's appointment whether they do it right or do it wrong. It belongs to the people.”

Asked about the prospects for a bill that failed to pass last year, Fierro said, “I feel good about it.”
Nobody spoke in opposition to the measure.