Blagogate Creates Special Session Bill

Lawmakers across country want votes to choose

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Amid allegations that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell President Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat, state lawmakers across the country are pushing to give voters -- not governors -- the power to fill similar vacancies.

Lawmakers in Illinois, Maryland, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut, Colorado and New York have introduced bills to require special elections for open Senate seats.

Though such elections could be time-consuming and costly -- Minnesota officials estimate a statewide special election there would cost $3.5 million and Maryland officials say they'd need about four months for one -- supporters argue the choice should be left to voters.

"An appointment by a governor warps the normal democratic process in that one voter -- the governor -- gets to choose who gets to be a senator," said Maryland Delegate Saqib Ali, who was inspired by what he calls the "Blagojevich imbroglio" to introduce a bill in his state.

Vacant House seats already require special elections, but 38 states give governors the sole power to appoint interim senators until the next regular congressional election, meaning a temporary senator can serve up to two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Four of those states -- Arizona, Hawaii, Utah and Wyoming -- require governors to pick someone from the departing senator's political party.

Just 12 states require special elections, and most allow their governors to appoint someone to serve until then.

In addition to giving up his own Senate seat, Obama made Delaware Sen. Joe Biden his vice president and appointed New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg and Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to cabinet posts, leaving four more open seats for governors to fill this year.

"We're just thankful that Illinois is the mess that it is," said New York Assemblyman Rory Lancman, a Democrat from Queens. "Otherwise New York would be the leading contender for the biggest circus during a Senate appointment process."

New York Gov. David Paterson went back and forth about picking Caroline Kennedy to fill Clinton's seat. She withdrew and Paterson chose Democratic Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, angering some who didn't know her and others who didn't like her opposition to gun control.

"The governor would have been better off had the public decided who our senator is," Lancman said. "There's a saying that when a governor makes an appointment he creates 10 enemies and one ingrate."

In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter chose Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, who had never run for statewide office, to succeed Salazar, setting the stage for a strong Republican push in 2010.

In Delaware, now-retired Gov. Ruth Ann Minner tapped longtime Biden aide Ted Kaufman, who will serve only until 2010, which could clear a path for Biden's son Beau to try for the seat. In New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. John Lynch replaced Gregg with Republican Bonnie Newman who, like Kaufman, says she has no plans to run for the seat herself.

States aren't the only ones considering changing the process. Illinois Republican Congressmen Aaron Schock and John Shimkus have proposed requiring all states to hold special elections to fill their Senate vacancies. In addition, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has proposed amending the Constitution to end gubernatorial appointments to fill Senate vacancies and instead require special elections.

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said the expense of special elections may be deter cash-strapped states, but he's not surprised lawmakers are considering them.

"My suspicion is public opinion, at least for people who read the news, will favor coming up with a more democratic method for filling senate vacancies," he said.

While there is movement to consider special elections, some acknowledge that the process has worked for a long time -- and that states shouldn't be too quick to change just because of the Blagojevich scandal. Critics say one of the dangers is that constituents could go without representation for a long time while a special election is organized back home.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said after a recent speech that special elections are something to consider -- but he hasn't taken a position on the bill in his state yet. It wouldn't take effect until 2015, after he's out of office.

"Perhaps that's the way to go," O'Malley said, answering a question from a U.S. Naval Academy student. But, he said, allowing governors to make appointments "worked for a good long time. I don't think the problem is in the appointment process. I think the problem was in Gov. Blagojevich."

Crofton resident Harry Telegadas, who was eating at Chick and Ruth's Delly in downtown Annapolis last week, said taking appointment power away from governors wouldn't do much good.

"I just don't think a special election would prevent unethical people from doing criminal things," he said.

But deli manager Nancy Trudeau, 53, supported the idea.

"It would probably prevent whatever happened with Blago or Blavo -- whatever his name is from happening again," she said. "After all, it's probably not just him, he's just the one who got caught."

Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Chicago's northwestern suburbs who has sponsored his state's bill to require special elections for Senate vacancies, said he thinks Illinois lawmakers and voters now understand the problems of the current system.

"Something good can come out of what happened here," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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