Clinton Seat Could Go to N.Y. Lieutenant Governor

Posted February 6, 2008 at 6:36pm

On the January night Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) lost the Iowa caucuses, she surrounded herself with prominent figures from her husband’s White House. One person on the stage with her, however, clearly wasn’t a Clinton administration veteran — or an Iowan: New York Lt. Gov. David Paterson (D).

That’s a name and face, New York political insiders will tell their Washington, D.C., counterparts, to get used to. If Clinton is elected president in November, many Empire State political observers believe that Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) will tap Paterson to succeed her in the Senate.

“He’ll probably appoint David Paterson,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former political reporter in New York. “He’s his lieutenant governor, a black guy who’d be a breakthrough” appointment.

Paterson, a 52-year-old Columbia University graduate, isn’t the only name mentioned as a possibility to fill Clinton’s seat. The list is long — and includes a handful of Members of Congress.

Whoever gets the nod in 2009 would have to run a campaign in 2010 to fill the remaining two years of Clinton’s Senate term.

Spitzer has not said a word publicly about what he’d do if Clinton moved on to the White House. And it’s entirely possible that other powerful New York politicians — including Clinton and the state’s other Senator, Charles Schumer (D) — would weigh in.

“If Hillary’s nominated or president, you’d think she’d have a say in it too,” said one Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist with close ties to New York affairs.

What’s known is this: When Spitzer asked Paterson to be his running mate in 2006, many political observers believed that the two had struck some kind of deal. Gubernatorial candidates in New York don’t generally get to choose their running mates — those arrangements are often more like shotgun marriages, with the primary winners for governor and lieutenant governor teaming up for the general election.

But even though several Democrats were already in the race for lieutenant governor, Spitzer, the leading gubernatorial candidate, was able to clear the Democratic field when he persuaded Paterson to run for the No. 2 post. Paterson was then the state Senate Minority Leader, and with Democrats in New York close to taking control of that chamber for the first time in decades, he gambled away the potential for real political power to become Spitzer’s running mate and elevate his statewide profile.

That was the first clue to seasoned New York political observers that Paterson was at least contemplating the possibility of succeeding Clinton, if the opportunity were to present itself.

What’s more, Paterson has several powerful political patrons, starting with his father, Basil Paterson, a former New York secretary of state and the first black vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The elder Paterson is a lifelong friend of several other veteran Harlem politicians, including Rep. Charlie Rangel (D), former New York City Mayor David Dinkins (D) and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton (D), who is now an influential broadcasting mogul.

So by tapping David Paterson to be his running mate, Spitzer essentially was reaching out not just to a talented legislator but also to these powerful party leaders — at a time when Rangel in particular was criticizing the gubernatorial candidate’s brashness.

“I can’t believe that formally or informally there wasn’t some kind of promise made, that there weren’t some kind of expectations that Paterson would have first crack” at a Senate vacancy, said one veteran New York political observer. “This was a compact not just with David, but with the ‘Harlem Mafia.’”

Since being elected lieutenant governor, Paterson has not denied his interest in a Senate appointment, though he has been quick to say in interviews that he is concentrating on his day job and is working to elect Clinton because he thinks she would make the best president. In the past few weeks, Paterson — despite being legally blind — has stumped for the Senator in Iowa and South Carolina.

In a state where almost 40 percent of the population is minority, the prospect of appointing a black Senator to fill Clinton’s shoes could be appealing to Spitzer. If he’s looking to name a black Senator but wants to keep Paterson in his current post, other possibilities include Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (D) or Rep. Gregory Meeks (D).

Meeks is openly ambitious but may have suffered political damage recently when he agreed to pay the Federal Election Commission $63,000 in fines for using campaign funds for personal reasons, misstating financial activity and receiving contributions in excess of federal contribution limits.

If Spitzer wants to name New York’s first Latino Senator, he could turn to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer (D), a two-time candidate for mayor.

And if he wants to appoint the first female Senator, there is no shortage of possibilities — though no woman has ever won a statewide general election in New York, other than lieutenant governors who were propelled into office by the victories of the gubernatorial candidates.

Some New York women believe that Rep. Nita Lowey (D) deserves consideration if there is a Senate vacancy. Lowey was preparing to run for Senate in 2000, only to defer to Clinton. But Lowey is 70 and had a health scare recently — and her time may have passed. Another possibility is Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) — Spitzer’s neighbor on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — who turns 60 later this month.

Among other Members of Congress, Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D) and Anthony Weiner (D), a protégé of Schumer’s, also are mentioned as possibilities — though Weiner is gearing up to run for mayor of New York a second time in 2009.

One intriguing name mentioned is state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D), the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D). The younger Cuomo, who replaced Spitzer as attorney general when Spitzer advanced to the governor’s mansion, has proved to be a thorn in the governor’s side.

The Washington-based strategist with close ties to New York wondered, “Does Eliot get rid of Andrew so he doesn’t run against him” in a 2010 primary?

Outside of electoral politics, two other names are mentioned as possible Senate appointees: Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who is pushing 70, and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — whose father held the same Senate seat Clinton now occupies.

Carroll predicted that Spitzer’s choice may be dictated by his own political standing. After being swept into office with an astonishing 70 percent of the vote in 2006, Spitzer has seen his political capital quickly diminish.

“The question is, what’s in it for Spitzer?” Carroll said. “He’s in so much hot water these days, he has to do whatever he can to look like a statesman.”