Hillary Clinton's Senate Seat Prompts Debate

If Hillary Clinton leaves the U.S. Senate for a spot in President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet, who will be the next junior senator from New York? Speculation is mounting as the governor's decision nears.

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You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News. If any New York State politician has got hold of the wishbone from yesterday's turkey, we can guess what some of them what might be wishing for: the Senate seat of Hillary Rodham Clinton. If, as expected, Clinton is named as the next secretary of state, then the new senator from New York will be named by the Democratic governor. And that has many elected officials dreaming of Hillary's leftovers, as NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: This week the press followed around New York Governor David Paterson hoping for any word, any hint of whom he might appoint to the Senate seat, you know, the one that officially Clinton's still sitting in, but that fact hasn't stopped the frenzy of speculation. Even fellow politicians are playing along. At an event in the Bronx, Democratic Representative Jose Serrano stood next to Governor Paterson and swore that he wasn't currently lobbying for the Senate seat.

(Soundbite of campaign event)

(Soundbite of applause)

Representative JOSE SERRANO (Democrat, New York): I did that last week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: For an entire generation of Democratic politicians this is no joke. I mean, let's face it. Hillary Clinton could have been reelected to that seat forever. There are representatives, mayors, dog catchers who never dream that they'd make it to the big show, and now all they have to do is impress just one man, Governor David Paterson. And he's playing coy about what he's looking for.

Governor DAVID PATERSON (Democratic, New York): A highly skilled person and one with the combination of skills and certainly they will be big shoes to fill in trying to find that person.

SMITH: David Paterson knows about filling big shoes. He took over for Elliot Spitzer after that little sex-scandal thing. And because Paterson so new to the job no one seems to know what strategy he'll play with the open Senate seat. If Paterson is truly opportunistic, he could appoint himself as New York senator, something he ruled out in a radio interview at WLBB in Albany.

Gov. PATERSON: I would think it was selfish. I signed up to be lieutenant governor as the governor couldn't serve out his term. I think I'm compelled to try to serve out his term. And in my case if things work out, I'd like to come back for another term.

SMITH: OK, so that's out. But since Paterson is running again he could make a crossly political decision, like say appointing someone who might challenge him for governor. Doug Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Brook College, brings up the name of the current New York State attorney general.

Professor DOUG MUZZIO (Public Affairs, Brook College): With Andrew Cuomo, you'll eliminate a potential rival in 2010.

SMITH: But Muzzio doesn't think that's going to happen because there are too many interest groups clamoring in New York State for someone to represent them. Women's groups have already made it clear that if the governor appoints a man to take over for Hillary Clinton, he'll catch hell.

Prof. MUZZIO: It's not a woman's seat. But I think that would not be, you know, I know an important consideration. It would be a significant one.

SMITH: And so many of the names being floated are female ones, Representative Nita Lowey of Westchester County or Christine Quinn, the first openly gay speaker of the New York City Council. But in New York politics, there's a split more important than gender, upstate versus downstate.

Prof. MUZZIO: Upstaters feels that the weight of government is really downstate and, in fact, in New York City, and they're right.

SMITH: So, female, upstate, anything else? Now, the governor is also being encouraged to appoint a minority such as an African-American or Latino to the seat. Others float long shot names like environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr. His father once held the same seat. Professor Muzzio says it's a political parlor game that anyone can play.

Prof. MUZZIO: I want to start some speculation.

SMITH: OK, go for it.

Prof. MUZZIO: Bill Clinton.

SMITH: Why?

Prof. MUZZIO: Why would he offer it, or why would he take it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MUZZIO: Neither one of them has a satisfactory answer. But I figured I'd start the buzz for Bill Clinton.

SMITH: The problem for Governor Paterson is that the longer the list of names gets, the more people will resent him when he can pick only one. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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