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Politics & Poker: Paterson, Burris Jeopardize Otherwise Safe Seats

Chances are good that whenever Michael Steele, the new Republican National Committee chairman, walks into a room full of party faithful, he’s the only African-American.

[IMGCAP(1)]Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got about 3 percent of the black vote last November — and most Republicans are probably OK with that, except that such a low number does not make for a winning electoral coalition these days.

So why is it the Democrats, and not the Republicans, appear to have a race problem these days?

No, the Democrats don’t have a problem appealing to voters of color, necessarily: Barack Obama’s election as president all but guarantees that many minority groups will continue voting Democratic for generations to come. But if you look at Democrats’ thorniest political troubles, race is playing a major role.

Put bluntly, Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and New York Gov. David Paterson (D) are two of the Democrats’ biggest problems at the moment. That both are African-American is unfortunate. That both are African-American may also be preventing party leaders from doing all they can to fix the political problems that Burris and Paterson have created.

By doing nothing to quell the controversy over how he was appointed, and by holding open the possibility of seeking a full term in 2010, Burris is, plain and simple, putting a safe Democratic Senate seat in jeopardy in a state where Republicans have become irrelevant. And Paterson’s sub-basement poll numbers and flopping from crisis to crisis has given Republicans a glimmer of hope in another state where they should be counted out.

Not just the governorship and control of the vast state bureaucracy of New York is at stake in 2010. Paterson has put the seat of appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) at risk. Also hanging in the balance is the Democrats’ tenuous (and only recently-won) hold on the state Senate. Lose the governorship or the state Senate next year, and that affects Congressional and legislative redistricting — with political implications that extend to the year 2022.

Disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) seemed to know what he was doing when he appointed Burris to the Senate — he knew the chamber’s leaders would be hard-pressed to block Burris’ appointment because they’d appear to be racist. Even with more troubling revelations about Burris and Blagojevich now made public, the Senate is highly unlikely to take steps to remove Burris.

Senate Democrats’ only course is to hope that Burris sees the risk of trying to mount a campaign for a full term and makes way for the many ambitious white Democrats who are already angling for his seat.

Similarly, in New York, Democratic leaders are rendered publicly mute by Paterson’s struggles, even with the presence of a political white knight — literally and figuratively — in state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D). But though he’s riding high from getting tough on Wall Street, and while polls show him demolishing Paterson in a hypothetical Democratic primary, Cuomo refuses to criticize the governor and almost certainly will not challenge him.

When Cuomo ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002, he was accused of waging a tough, inelegant primary campaign against Carl McCall (D), the state comptroller who was bidding to become the state’s first black governor. (McCall lost the general election.) Cuomo is still smarting from the criticism. So just as in Illinois, Democratic insiders in New York are left to hope that Paterson sees the futility of his political situation and stands down in favor of Cuomo — perhaps in exchange for a nice position in the Obama administration.

The irony in all this hand-wringing is that neither Burris nor Paterson was supposed to be where he is today.

Yes, Burris was a trailblazer in Illinois politics, winning three terms as state comptroller and one term as attorney general. But he advanced to these positions only after making his peace with the Chicago Democratic machine, which needed to show some commitment to diversity. Burris’ abilities did not seem to match his ambitions, and even more important, the voters never saw in Burris whatever magic he saw in himself.

Before his appointment to the Senate, he had failed five times in his attempt to move up the political ladder — losing three bids for governor, a Democratic Senate primary, and an independent bid for mayor of Chicago. According to “A Fire on the Prairie,— Gary Rivlin’s insightful biography of Harold Washington (D), Chicago’s first (and only elected) African-American mayor, Washington never had much regard for Burris. He endorsed Paul Simon, a white Congressman and a progressive like Washington, over Burris in the 1984 Democratic Senate primary, concluding that comptroller was about as far as Burris deserved to go.

Paterson is an accidental governor if ever there was one. He spent two decades in the state Senate, rising to Minority Leader, doing a competent job in that post. As far as anyone could tell, his one ambition was to some day become Senate Majority Leader.

But in 2006, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D), the overwhelming frontrunner in the gubernatorial election, needed to mend some fences with Harlem political leaders like Rep. Charlie Rangel (D). So even though two African-American Democrats were already running for lieutenant governor — wealthy attorney Charlie King and Leecia Eve, a former top aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter of the most powerful black leader in western New York — Spitzer decided he wanted Paterson, whose father was another important Harlem graybeard, to run with him. He thought the move would smooth relations with the Harlem machine; instead, it infuriated Rangel and his cohorts, who had already pledged their support to Eve. King and Eve eventually dropped out of the LG race.

Although none of the principals has ever said so publicly, it is universally understood that Spitzer promised Paterson, and by extension Rangel, et al., that as governor, he would appoint Paterson to the Senate if Clinton was elected president. But before that deal could ever be completed, before the Democratic presidential nomination was even settled, Spitzer was suddenly gone, the victim of a sex scandal. And Paterson became the top dog in Albany.

Paterson is a smart guy with a razor-sharp wit who has been dealt a very bad hand with a terrible economy and a ballooning state budget deficit. But many of his moves have defied explanation, and many of his wounds have been self-inflicted. It may be that he is just constitutionally not suited to being a chief executive.

The Democrats may survive the Burris and Paterson fiascos. The problems may yet work themselves out. But they are sure making party leaders squirm.

American history is littered with thousands of white politicians who were thugs, crooks, incompetents or imbeciles, unqualified for the offices they held. So maybe, just maybe, in this age of Obama, when voters of all races are celebrating the ground-breaking achievements of our young president, the fact that African-American politicians like Paterson and Burris can screw up in high office represents, in its own way, some kind of racial progress as well.

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