The Empire State Shuffle

So, assuming Hillary Clinton is, in fact, leaving the Senate to become Secretary of State (and assuming, see here, here and here, that she can Constitutionally take the job), that sets off the next round of political merry-go-round for New York: who will be appointed by Governor David Paterson to replace her?

Recall the setting. Hillary was re-elected in 2006, defeating Yonkers Mayor John Spencer; her term would be up in 2012, but Gov. Paterson gets to nominate a replacement, who would then face the voters in a special election in 2010. Gov. Paterson was elected Lieutenant Governor in 2006 and took over as Governor earlier this year after Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace. Meanwhile, Chuck Schumer is up for re-election in 2010, meaning that all three major statewide offices will be on the ballot in 2010, two of the three filled with incumbents who would be facing the voters for the first time, an unusually fluid situation.First of all, one thing that seems certain is that this alignment will result in Chuck Schumer running unopposed for re-election. Paterson and the new Senator, as well as the newly elected State Senators who have given the Democrats a majority in the State Senate, will all be juicy but expensive targets to take on in a state that tilts heavily Democratic; the NY GOP can only spare so many resources, and even in a good year for Republicans (as 2010 is likely to be), and Schumer is nearly bulletproof unless he goes the way of Spitzer.

Second, I don’t think Bill Clinton will be interested in the job. Hillary, frankly, is apparently jumping at being Secretary of State to escape the dull anonymity of the Senate (bear in mind that Democratic Senators lacking seniority and committee chairmanships will now be expected to fall quietly in line with the Obama agenda no less than his Cabinet members) for the world stage and never have to campaign in Rochester and Buffalo again. I don’t see Bill wanting to become a freshman legislator.

Third, while David Paterson is a protege of Charlie Rangel, Rangel’s powerful position as Ways and Means Chairman means he won’t be much interested in a “promotion” to the Senate. Likewise, Louise Slaughter would have been the logical choice among upstate Congresspersons, but Slaughter is 79 and chair of the House Rules Committee; like Rangel, she’s too powerful and too old to leave her House slot and start over.

So who does that leave? There would appear to be five logical contenders.

(1) Andrew Cuomo is the logical favorite, for reasons of naked self-interest (Paterson fears, justifiably, that the State Attorney General and former HUD Secretary may challenge him for the nomination for his dad’s old job). Cuomo has no particular regional base in the state – his father was from Queens, but Andrew has spent years in Albany and Washington – but has statewide name recognition and has won statewide election. Brian Faughnan suggests that the camera-hungry Schumer may be opposed to Paterson picking the high-profile Cuomo. Of course, Cuomo’s tenure at HUD will sooner or later lead to tough questions about his role at the creation of the housing crisis. A Cuomo appointment would also set off a second round of musical chairs, as the AG job is a powerful one with many open investigations.

(2) Kirsten Gillibrand – I agree with ironman at Next Right that Gillibrand is a strong contender. Paterson is a black urban liberal from Harlem (if that’s not redundant); to win statewide, he needs to draw support from upstate and reach out to white and/or Latino voters. Tabbing Gillibrand has the hallmarks of the classic ticket-balancer: she’s relatively young (42), telegenic, Catholic, a mother of two young children and represents a traditionally Republican district she won in 2006 from the excessively hard-partying John Sweeney. Gillibrand might want to get out of Dodge – her district is sooner or later going to give her a tough re-election battle (in 2008, Gillibrand and her self-funding opponent combined to raise more money than the combatants in any other Congressional district in the country), and as Clyde Haberman notes, New York is likely to lose Congressional seats by 2012, so Democrats in marginal upstate districts will be scrambling to hold on.

The downside? Egos (of which New York politics has a perennial surplus) would be bruised if Gillibrand leapfrogs over more veteran lawmakers, including her old boss Cuomo (who she worked for at HUD). Democrats could well lose her House seat. And liberals may not be happy with picking a member of the Blue Dog caucus who has a 100% rating from the NRA, opposed Eliot Spitzer’s plan to give drivers’ licenses to illegal aliens, is a sponsor of the SAVE Act and of employer verification of legal status of workers and, supports making the Bush tax cuts permanent. (I’d expect her to drift leftward in the Senate, but if you’re a Democrat looking to install someone in a safe seat, you might want someone more reliable).

(3) Nydia Velazquez – Another NY City arch-liberal (she voted to investigate President Bush for impeachment proceedings over the Iraq War), Congresswoman Velazquez – the chair of the Hispanic Caucus and the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress – would cement Paterson’s ties with Latino voters. There’s speculation that she may prefer running the Hispanic Caucus, which makes little enough sense to me, and I’m not sure how well she would play in a statewide election. Wikipedia notes that “During her [1992] campaign for the House seat, her medical records, including documented clinical depression and an attempted suicide [in 1991], were leaked to the press. She quickly held a press conference and said that she had been undergoing counseling for years and was emotionally and psychologically healthy.” (This 1992 NYT report discusses the suicide attempt.)

(4) Byron Brown, the Mayor of Buffalo and a former State Senator. Brown is African-American, a mixed blessing for Paterson if he’s looking to expand his appeal across racial/ethnic lines, but he’s also the mayor of a key upstate city. Brown’s record as an executive means he’s less immediately identifiable along hot-button voting lines.

(5) Brian Higgins, a Congressman also from Buffalo, first elected in 2004. Higgins claims to be a New Democrat but is a much more conventional liberal than Gillibrand.

As for the GOP side, it remains to be seen. Mayor Bloomberg, now an Independent, has twisted many arms in the City Council to remove term limits so he can run for a third term in 2009; I assume that means he’s staying put in 2010. Rudy Giuliani probably couldn’t win a statewide election for the Senate at this point, but would be a very strong candidate for Governor if he was more motivated than during his disappointing presidential campaign; if the voters are unhappy with Albany, well, lots of politicians run on “change” but no living political figure has a record of bringing about as dramatic change as Giuliani did as Mayor of New York. Combative, maverick Long Island Congressman Peter King has talked about running for the Governorship as well, but King would probably be the GOP’s strongest candidate for the Senate seat, depending who Paterson picks.

It’s going to be an interesting two years here in the Empire State.