December 24, 2008 in Opinion

Froma Harrop: N.Y. process parallels Illinois scandal

Froma Harrop
 

Suppose in 2002 the Kennedys (or another “political dynasty”) had a son or daughter or cousin they wanted to slip into Illinois’ contested U.S. Senate seat. You know the arguments: powerful family, name recognition, can raise bags of money. Done deal. Do not try to resist.

If that had happened, there would be no Barack Obama. He of the deceased mother, vanished father and wife whose dad worked at the city water plant wouldn’t have had a chance. He had no powerful uncles to pick up the phone and plug him into a Senate seat. Obama’s considerable charisma notwithstanding, the television cameras would have made a beeline for whatever Kennedy. Remember, Obama was only a state senator at the time.

And it wouldn’t have made much difference that in 2002 the contenders had to run for the office – as opposed to the current situation in Illinois, where the seat has been vacated (by Obama) and will be filled by the governor. The political wise ones would have insisted that you can’t overcome the Kennedy forces. The Kennedy child would get, at the very least, the Democratic nomination. Repeated often enough, such assumptions become self-fulfilling.

In New York state, we are told that Caroline Kennedy is the favorite for Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat, and for the usual reasons of celebrity and money. Kennedy would have to run for election in 2010. Gov. David Paterson would also be on the ballot, as would New York’s other senator, Democrat Chuck Schumer.

On ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Cokie Roberts explains that “her name and all that is going to work for the Democratic Party in New York, and that’s the calculation. … It’s not how great a senator she’s going to be.”

Stephanopoulos adds, “They want someone else on the ballot with that star power who can raise the money.”

Would someone please draw a dark line of distinction between what we call a scandal in Illinois and business as usual in New York? Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell a vacant Senate seat, while Paterson is expected to give a Senate seat to the woman whose family can raise lots of money for his benefit.

Several New York representatives have shown interest in the Senate position, and despite their record of service to the people of the state – and their familiarity with places like Syracuse, Syosset and Staten Island – they have been dismissed as nobodies. Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano isn’t vying for the job, but he spoke for his colleagues when he said, “What are we, chopped liver?”

In an utterly straight-faced editorial, the New York Times noted that Caroline has much going for her: “As a public figure, she carries the glamour and poignancy of her family, the only living child of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, an uncle of hers, has reigned for years as the liberal clarion in the Senate. Another uncle, the late Bobby Kennedy, was a charismatic senator who represented New York 40 years ago.”

Famous father? Powerful uncle? Another charismatic uncle? Welcome to 19th century Parma.

For a while, I thought that only “Saturday Night Live” could save us from this absurdity, but then Politico burst through the nonsense with the perfect headline: “Nepotism Nation: Dems embrace dynasty politics.” The story lumped Caroline in with plans to save Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s Delaware Senate seat for his son and to give Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar’s job to Salazar’s brother.

How many promising Democrats are being locked out of this dance? Makes Obama’s rise seem a total miracle.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.


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