Delaware Bridge to the Future

Posted November 26, 2008 at 3:18pm

When Ted Kaufman enters the Senate in January upon the eventual resignation of Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, he’ll embark on a two-year-long victory tour that will cap off a lifelong political journey in the footsteps of the Biden family.

Kaufman, a close Biden confidant for more than 30 years, was appointed last week by outgoing Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) to fill the vice president-elect’s seat in the Senate until a special election can be held in 2010. In accepting the post — and making it clear that he has no ambitions beyond serving a custodial role in the Senate — Kaufman’s greatest service to the Biden family, at least politically speaking, may well be to serve as a bridge between two generations of Bidens on Capitol Hill.

It is widely assumed that Biden’s son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden (D), who turned down a Senate appointment because his National Guard unit is being deployed to the Middle East, will run in the 2010 Senate election.

But Minner’s selection wasn’t universally hailed by Delaware Democrats last week. Kaufman’s name hadn’t been at the top of many watch lists before Minner’s announcement on Tuesday, and some state Democrats have since groused that such a powerful appointment should have gone to someone with more political ambition.

One name that comes to mind in those discussions is outgoing Lt. Gov. John Carney (D), who has been a close ally of Minner’s. Minner endorsed Carney in his losing gubernatorial primary race this year, and Carney had expressed interest in the Senate appointment before Kaufman was named.

Carney admitted last week in a brief statement that he was “disappointed” at being passed over for the job, and he left open the possibility of running in the 2010 special election, saying, “I’ve dedicated my life to public service and I will continue to look for the best opportunity to keep doing that.”

Delaware insiders said last week that the selection of Kaufman over a candidate like Carney left little doubt that Minner allowed Biden to choose his own replacement.

“There’s no question that this was Joe’s call,” one longtime Delaware political observer said. And if Biden’s Senate seat wasn’t directly handed over to a member of his family, it was given to the next closest thing.

Conventional wisdom has long been that Beau Biden would one day replace his father in the Senate. But the timing didn’t quite work in what has been an eventful 2008 for one of Delaware’s most notable political families. Beau Biden, who serves in the Delaware Army National Guard, has been deployed to Iraq for a nine-month tour, and he has proved in the past that he would rather run for a job than be appointed to it. In 2005, Minner offered to appoint him as state attorney general when that post unexpectedly opened up, but he declined in favor of running for the job outright.

Enter Kaufman, who served on Biden’s Senate staff for 21 years (19 of them as chief of staff), acted as a top adviser during Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign and worked as co-chairman of his vice presidential transition team.

“If there is any daylight between [Kaufman’s] philosophy and Joe’s, I don’t know of it. They really are that close. Ted is like a brother to him,” the Delaware insider said.

And Kaufman, 69, made it clear when his appointment was announced that he won’t run for the seat in the 2010 special election.

“I am very comfortable with retiring after two years,” Kaufman said last week. “I don’t think Delaware’s appointed Senator should spend the next two years running for office.”

Which means he would be getting ready to leave office just in time for Beau Biden to come home from an overseas deployment and throw his hat in the ring for his dad’s old seat — and perhaps set up a primary with Carney.

In her announcement last week, Minner made the case that Kaufman was selected for the Senate post as a way of giving Delaware voters what they asked for when they gave the elder Biden a seventh Senate term on Election Day.

Kaufman “shares Delaware’s values. His political views are close to Sen. Biden’s, and he doesn’t need any on-the-job training,” Minner said.

Regardless of what political maneuvering may have taken place in Biden’s inner circle, those who know Kaufman say they are thrilled he’ll return to Capitol Hill in the role of a Member after serving as a staffer for so many years.

And while a personality as large as Biden’s will be hard to replace in the Senate, those who know him say Kaufman is well-prepared to step into the shoes of the man whom he stood next to for so many years.

Paul Brathwaite, a principal at the Podesta Group and a longtime Capitol Hill staffer who hails from Delaware, has known Kaufman for more than a decade and was a student of Kaufman’s at Duke University School of Law, where the former Biden chief of staff has served as a senior lecturer for more than 15 years.

“His students love him. He has a very easy personality, is very easy to work with and to talk to,” Brathwaite said. “Ted has worked in and around the Senate for longer than any incoming Senator, and so he is going to be able to hit the ground running. That will be a clear advantage for him and Delaware because of his intimate knowledge of how the place works.”

Kaufman even earned praise last week from the other side of the aisle as Delaware’s longtime GOP Rep. Mike Castle lauded the selection. “As a longtime confidant and former chief of staff to Sen. Biden, Ted has the expertise to allow for a very smooth transition and the ability to serve Delawareans with distinction,” Castle said.