Over-mighty governors
It�s time to curb their power to pick senators
Published January 29th 2009 in The Economist

WHEN David Paterson unexpectedly became governor of New York last year after Eliot Spitzer’s resignation, he impressed everyone by putting the economic crisis before politics. He was doing rather well until he had to appoint someone to fill the Senate vacancy left by Hillary Clinton when she was made secretary of state.

Caroline Kennedy, John Kennedy’s daughter, wanted the job. As an early supporter of Barack Obama, she would have had his ear. Though lacking any political experience (she left the White House when she was six), she would at least have been an excellent fund-raiser for the Democratic Party and Mr Paterson in particular. But Ms Kennedy stumbled from the start. She lacked political charisma and failed to explain her views on important issues. Her apparent sense of entitlement annoyed many, including—some said—the governor. And polls revealed that New Yorkers did not want her anyway. Ms Kennedy withdrew from the process on January 21st for “personal reasons”. The speculation has been intense, but inconclusive.

Mr Paterson’s two-month selection process was needlessly drawn-out. His tendency to gossip about it was distasteful. A Paterson staffer reportedly made anonymous malicious remarks about Ms Kennedy to the press. Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor, called it “cheap, dirty politics”. Mr Paterson tried to undo the damage but ended up making things worse.

His eventual choice was a surprise. He appointed Kirsten Gillibrand, a “blue dog” Democratic congressman from upstate New York, who had just been re-elected to her second two-year term. He must be hoping her more conservative base will help him in his 2010 campaign. She is supported by the National Rifle Association and is perceived to be anti-immigrant, neither of which endears her to liberal Manhattanites. “She took positions that reflect her constituents,” says Gerald Benjamin, of the State University of New York.

Illinois’s adventures in patronage have been even more disastrous. Rod Blagojevich, a man most people would no longer trust to appoint a dog catcher, has the right to choose Mr Obama’s successor in the Senate. After he was accused of plotting to sell the Senate seat, there was talk of a special election. But Democratic leaders in Springfield, the capital, stalled, and the result was that the governor’s appointee, Roland Burris (apparently a blameless candidate), has become Illinois’s new junior senator. As his impeachment trial began in the state Senate on January 26th, Mr Blagojevich appealed to talk-show hosts, describing his innocence and jogging habits, and boasting that he had considered appointing Oprah Winfrey to the Senate seat.

Meanwhile, the governors of Colorado and Delaware have filled the vacancies left by Ken Salazar and Joe Biden with no drama. Mr Biden’s seat, though, was filled by someone widely assumed to be keeping the seat warm for Mr Biden’s son, currently serving in Iraq.

Many would argue that gubernatorial appointments give too much power to one person and too little to voters. Since 1913 more than 180 senators have been appointed by governors, according to Fair Vote, a voting-rights advocacy group. Only four states—Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wisconsin—fill vacancies purely by special election.

David Segal of Fair Vote says there is no reason why a speedy election could not be held when Senate vacancies occur. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin senator, is trying to amend the constitution to require just that. House vacancies, after all, are filled in that manner. No fewer than 26 candidates are now vying for voters’ attention in the race for the seat vacated by Rahm Emanuel when he became White House chief of staff. Recent events show that the Senate needs to bury this relic of the past.