Republicans in New York's Legislature are pushing for a special election to fill the expected vacancy in the U.S. Senate instead of allowing Democratic Gov. David Paterson to make a unilateral appointment through a secretive process.
The efforts, however, are by traditionally powerless minority conferences of the Assembly and Senate and face a near impossible timetable to even get the bills to floor debates before Paterson chooses Hillary Rodham Clinton's successor from a field of Democrats including Caroline Kennedy and Andrew Cuomo.
Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, a Schenectady Republican, noted specifically that Kennedy, the perceived front-runner, has no record in elected office and her positions on public policy are largely unknown.
"We need an election, not a coronation, to ensure our next U.S. senator reflects the will of the people," Tedisco said.
He warned that filling vacancies without an election is ``diminishing democracy." Two of New York's six statewide offices -- governor and comptroller -- are already filled by unelected officials: Paterson ascended to the job when Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution investigation and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli was appointed after Alan Hevesi pleaded guilty to using state employees as drivers and companions for his wife.
In a press conference, Tedisco distributed an Associated Press story from the morning papers that quoted New York's expert on open government and good-government advocates criticizing Paterson's process of not releasing who is seeking the seat, what they stand for, or any background information. Tedisco also noted the scandal in Illinois, where Gov. Rod Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell to the highest bidder his appointment for the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. In Illinois, the House had sought to take the appointment power away from the governor, but the effort failed.
"I'm not equating our governor with the governor of Illinois ... but you can see what happens," Tedisco said.
"It's a bad idea now,'' said Gerald Benjamin, professor of politics at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He sees perhaps some merit in the idea longterm, but says the current proposals seem partisan.
The issue also arose in Delaware to fill the seat of Sen. Joe Biden, soon to be sworn in as vice president. Delaware's governor will appoint a new senator, who would serve for two years until the 2010 election, at which time Biden's son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, may run for the seat.
Republican Sen. Joseph Griffo of Oneida County submitted a bill similar to Tedisco's in the Senate Tuesday.
"In my mind, you should empower the people,'' Griffo said.
The U.S. Constitution allows state legislatures to give the appointment power to governors, but the bodies aren't required to and could rescind the authority.
Paterson, meanwhile, continues private meetings with as many as 15 unidentified people he said are in the running for the Senate seat. He's already talked to Kennedy, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and others. He's also reviewing a lengthy form he asked all hopefuls to submit that asks for education and experience as well as information about personal finances.
Paterson expects to announce his decision within days, once Clinton is confirmed as secretary of state.
Tedisco argued that if the next senator is appointed, that will mean New York will have an unelected governor, comptroller, and U.S. senator. And the lieutenant governor's office vacancy _ open since Paterson rose to governor _ can't be filled by law until the 2010 election.
If one of the presumed Senate hopefuls, Attorney General Cuomo, was appointed, the state could potentially have four out of six statewide offices with appointed officials.
"If you start to diminish democracy, you start going to totalitarianism," Tedisco said.
The Assembly's Democratic majority will send Tedisco's bill through its committee system, where it could stay long after Paterson makes his choice.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith has no plans to take up Griffo's bill.
"Sen. Smith has total confidence in the governor making the decision on the U.S. Senate seat which serves the needs of all New Yorkers," said Smith spokesman Austin Shafran. ``Any legislation that seeks to diminish the governor's authority is unnecessary and unwarranted.''
Paterson spokeswoman Erin Duggan said the governor will consider any legislation if it's passed by both chambers. Typically, that takes several weeks.