Political Waters Churn in New York

Posted November 15, 2008 at 8:21am

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) was the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007 and early 2008, the speculation on who might replace her in the Senate if she were elected president was fairly simple.

Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), it was widely assumed, had made a deal with the political patrons of his lieutenant governor, David Paterson (D), to appoint Paterson to the Senate if Clinton went to the White House.

This would guarantee Spitzer the support of Paterson’s powerful Harlem-based mentors — including Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and former New York Mayor David Dinkins (D) — during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign and beyond.

But with Spitzer’s stunning downfall in a sex scandal earlier this year, the political equation has changed dramatically. Paterson is now the governor, and he’d appoint the person who would take Clinton’s Senate seat if she becomes secretary of State in President-elect Barack Obama’s administration.

Paterson and his aides have said nothing publicly about whom he might appoint to the Senate if there is a vacancy. But at least a dozen names have circulated in recent days as news surfaced of the Obama-Clinton meeting on the State Department post.

Several Democratic House Members are among those mentioned, including Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand, Brian Higgins, Nita Lowey, Carolyn Maloney, Gregory Meeks, Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Weiner.

Without saying much publicly, Nadler has been the most aggressive about making his interest in the seat known. Under the guise of his position as a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Nadler toured the state this year, visiting key Congressional districts.

Nadler, a product of the hyper-liberal Upper West Side, may not be the most salable commodity in the rest of the state. But Paterson is indebted to Nadler politically.

Back in 1985, Paterson, who is the son of a powerful New York politician, was vying to fill a vacant state Senate seat against a fellow Democrat, Galen Kirkland. The Democratic nomination in the special election was doled out by a local party committee, and in a close race, Nadler steered the support of his political allies to Paterson, even though many liberal activists backed Kirkland.

(Ironically, Paterson recently appointed Kirkland the commissioner of the New York Division of Human Rights.)

Meanwhile, some Democrats believe that Lowey is owed the appointment, because she was gearing up to run for Senate in 2000 but deferred to Clinton when she decided to enter the race. Lowey, however, is 71, so it would be tough for her to accrue much seniority in the Senate.

Beyond the Members, another possibility for the Senate seat is a potential rival to Paterson, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D). Cuomo ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002 and it is assumed that he is interested in doing so again — possibly in a Democratic primary challenge to Paterson in 2010.

Other possibilities include environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose father held the seat that Clinton now holds, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (D), and Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi (D), whose father and Paterson’s father are law partners.

Apart from the fact that doing so could be politically toxic, it would also be logistically difficult for Paterson to wind up in the Senate if he still aspires to that job. The lieutenant governor post is vacant, meaning the state Senate Majority Leader is next in line to become governor if there is a vacancy. Democrats technically won control of the state Senate two weeks ago, but they won’t hold the majority until New Year’s Day. Complicating matters is the fact that three Democratic state Senators have not said whether they’ll vote for the Democratic leader or the Republican leader to become Majority Leader when the new state Senate is sworn in.

So Paterson is likely to stay in Albany and send someone else to Capitol Hill, if Clinton’s seat actually becomes vacant.