FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.
Caroline Kennedy is out on the road campaigning for Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate seat. And we'll have the latest on Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. He's fighting allegations that he's involved with the scandal to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. We've got these stories and more with our ace politicos, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, she's an author and nationally-syndicated columnist, and Robert Traynham, the D.C. bureau chief for the Comcast cable CN8. I've missed you guys. I haven't talked to you in a while.
Mr. ROBERT TRAYNHAM (D.C. Bureau Chief, Comcast Cable CN8 ): Hello, Farai.
Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Democratic Strategist; Author; Nationally-Syndicated Columnist): Hello. We miss you, too.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, definitely. So... ..TEXT: Mr. TRAYNHAM: I have some mistletoe for you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Oh, thank you. Well, I would rather share a dance floor at the inauguration.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: OK.
CHIDEYA: OK. We'll do that.
Ms. BRAZILE: Stop by my house for some warm gumbo before you go to those parties.
CHIDEYA: You bet you. You bet you.
Ms. BRAZILE: Absolutely.
CHIDEYA: I mean, my date is my mom. So I hope you save a little for her too.
Ms. BRAZILE: My date - I have actually several dates. My two sisters are coming up and some friends, and so it is going to be one great party in Washington, D.C.
CHIDEYA: That's right. Wear your comfortable shoes. Don't try to look cute.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BRAZILE: Yes, Indeed. Speak for yourself.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, you're better with that than I am then. Well, OK. Let's dig into this, with Senator Hillary Clinton. Her seat is up. Caroline Kennedy is the daughter of President John F. Kennedy. And Caroline Kennedy has spent most of her life shying away from the public spotlight in the way that politicians hold it. So Donna, why do you think she's interested in holding office at this point?
Ms. BRAZILE: You know, I'm sure that at some point, Ms. Kennedy got the political bug like everyone else. She grew up with politicians. She is the daughter of a great national statesman, the niece of perhaps one of the best legislators ever in the history of the United States Senate. She is well-qualified for this position. I hope she seeks the office, I hope Governor Paterson gives her every consideration. She has been a champion for civil rights, civil liberties, education, health care. Caroline Kennedy would not only bring stature to that seat, she would bring substance.
CHIDEYA: All right. Do we get a yes or no on those points from you, Robert?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: I think we'll get it sort of. And here's why. I mean, first and foremost, she feels inspired. She feels inspired for two reasons. Number one is because, obviously, her uncle is in ill health, and who knows how long he will be with us. Hopefully, he'll be with us for a very long time. But the fact of the matter is, a Kennedy in the Senate is something that the American psyche has been used to now for the past almost 50 years. Secondly, she feels inspired - and she said this herself During the campaign trail - is that, for the first time in her generation, for the first time in a very, very long time, she now feels inspired about politics, especially given the fact of her father's legacy.
So you know, is she qualified? Of course she's qualified. Is she, probably, the best senator that New York can probably have? I don't think so. And the reason why is because, New Yorkers are used to these high-profile people parachuting in. We saw this with Robert F. Kennedy. We saw this with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. We saw this - now they've all been very, very effective - but I think, first and foremost, we should - or they should have a New Yorker, a genuine New Yorker who actually runs for the seat, who actually campaigns for that seat, who actually wants that seat. And candidly speaking, maybe their last name should not Clinton. Maybe their last name should not be Kennedy. Maybe it should be a Brazile, maybe it should be Chideya, but the fact of the matter is, maybe it's time for an ordinary person to come in there and clean up the United States Senate.
CHIDEYA: Do you think that this is undemocratic, with a small d, Donna? The idea that, you know, people of great name, whose families have great stature, should be, you know - you know, obviously, she's done many things with her life. But is there the sense that she might be leapfrogging over other people if she goes for this?
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, you know, there's some merit to that, and there's no question that we live in an age, in an era, where people would like to see some fresh faces in public office. They will also like to see people who are not so well-connected and rich. But on the other hand, if Governor Paterson decides to put Caroline Kennedy in that position, he will make that decision based on what's best for the state of New York.
I think people should not underestimate Caroline Kennedy and her unique skills and talents that she will bring to the position. And I think at a time when not only the state of New York, but the country, is struggling for new leadership, she would be a breath of fresh air. So again - and also, I would like to see more women and minorities serve in public office. And so she fits at least one of those qualifications for me, and that is, she is a woman of stature.
CHIDEYA: I'm going to move us ahead, Robert, to Blagojevich and Jackson. So just to recap, of course, the Illinois governor, basically, he appears to have offered to sell the seat that Senator Obama held when he was in fact the senator and not just the president-elect, just. So there's this House panel launched an impeachment into the corruption case, and Republicans have launched a political ad campaign demanding a special election. There's many different people who want different things here. Why is there no solution, if it seems that the position is so tainted?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: I think the reason why it's so convoluted is because you have so many dominant personalities that are at play at this. And you also have so many conflicting emotions. The fact of the matter is - and this is all of course, alleged, the governor is still innocent until proven guilty in a court of law - is that it appears that no one can bring some type of resolution to this. With all due respect to the State of Illinois and to the City of Chicago. but it's my understanding that this is very common in Chicago, where you have a lot of dominant personalities, you have a lot of dominant people at play that have a lot to say and a lot to win and a lot to lose with this Senate seat.
It appears to me - and this is not just because of my previous background in politics, this is me talking as an American - but it appears that the only that this can really be cleaned, if you will, is if the American - or the Illinois people were to go to the polls and decide for themselves. Not the governor, not the state legislature, not a Congressman or another senator but the people themselves go into the polling booth and says, this is who I want as my next United States Senator. It should be taken out of the backrooms of the cloak room, out of the backrooms of the bars and of the legislators, and in the hands of the people. This is exactly what President-elect Obama campaigned on, and this is exactly what the American people deserve and want.
CHIDEYA: Do you think, Donna, that there should - the state, or perhaps all states, should move to special election system?
Ms. BRAZILE: I think eventually that's probably one of the reforms that we will look at in the coming years as President Obama, once he takes - President-elect Obama, once he takes office, would like to bring in an air of accountability and transparency. And I think that is one way to ensure that there are no backroom deals, there's no quid pro quo and no pay-to-play schemes. And let me just say, look, we have just endured in D.C. over the last eight years a culture of corruption, and the last thing we need is to send someone to Washington, D.C. that has been tainted by the political process in their particular state. So I think voters at some point will begin to tell politicians that we don't like the current schemes, we don't like the current methodology, how we select our leaders. I didn't say elect, I said select our leaders. And I think voters will demand the kind of change that we ultimately need to being in more transparency.
CHIDEYA: All right, Donna, what about Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.? It came out that he is the candidate number five, but that doesn't mean that he offered quit pro quo. And by that, I mean, there were a list of candidates associated within the investigation into the governor's actions - alleged actions. Governor Blagojevich's alleged actions. One day, I will get that right without trying twice. So what's the status in your mind of Congressman Jackson's ability to frame the debate around his role, or lack thereof in this?
Ms. BRAZILE: You know, when you start issuing press releases every other day, things become a little bit murky. After his first press conference, I called them to say I thought he did a great job in laying out the facts, and essentially acknowledging that he was candidate five. Now with this new revelation that he may or may not have served as a government informant, and then another press release indicating that he did nothing wrong, all he was doing as a public servant was informing federal officials something that was going on that didn't meet the smells test.
I have to tell you, I too, am one of those Americans that's waiting for Mr. Fitzgerald to layout all of the information to give us a complete account on what happened, and to see the evidence. Right now, it's a lot of innuendo, a lot of hearsay, a lot of talk. But this seems to be a web that is going to ensnare a lot more than the governor, and it worries me deeply.
CHIDEYA: From your perspective, Robert, do you see Congressman Jackson being able to have a future as someone who has the chance to be senator, let alone in this situation, just ever?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: You know what, Farai, I don't know. And the reason why I don't know is because as my grandma used to say, you know, it doesn't pass the common sense test. The common sense tells us is that there's something going on here more than what we currently know. Common sense also tells us here is that the more and more you talk, it seems like the more and more you get into this deeper and deeper hole as opposed to what Congressman Jackson is saying and what his actions are also alluding to.
So the fact of the matter is that we simply don't know. And frankly, there's only two people that really do know. And that's Congressman Jackson and perhaps maybe the special prosecutor. I understand why Congressman Jackson wants to come out and set the record straight. I understand why he wants to make to sure that his reputation is not tainted.
What I don't understand is why allegedly some of these things are being done the way they're being done. What I also don't understand is is how the people of Illinois can sit there and say, OK, I'm going to let the state legislature, or I'm going to let the governor make this appointment. They probably are saying, wait a minute, my common sense here is telling me that I want to decide who my next United States senator is. This is the people that needs to decide - we, the people, need to decide who our elected officials are, not some backroom governor, and not some Congressman as well.
CHIDEYA: Well, I want you guys to stay with us, we're going to have to go to a break. But we have a lot more to talk about, including some new additions to Barack Obama's cabinet. And then there's also that question of the Minnesota runoff, and just how that Senate race keeps going on and on and on. So stay with us.
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CHIDEYA: This is News & Notes, I'm Farai Chideya. We're back talking politics with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Robert Traynham, the D.C. bureau chief for the Comcast cable network CN8. And so guys, I'm going to move on to the cabinet. President-elect Barack Obama announced some more positions. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for Agriculture and Arne Duncan, new secretary of Education nominee. He's currently the head of the Chicago Public School System, he supported formation of new charter schools, performance-based pay, increased funding for No Child Left Behind. Let's start with him. Do you have any information, Robert, on what makes him a standout? And also, how are Republicans responding, if you know anything about that?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Yeah, I'm told he has a very dominant personality. He's someone that has very sharp elbows. He is someone that is not afraid to close down schools that are not performing, and also holds teacher accountable, which is obviously a good thing. Look, every single parent out there, every single uncle or aunt, or anyone that has a child in their life, wants teachers as wells as schools to be held accountable, and they want to make sure that their children are being able to learn to the best of their ability.
But I've also heard from a lot of my Republican sources that, although he does have sharp elbows, Farai, he doesn't have sharp elbows when it comes to the teachers' unions. He walks this very, very fine line of saying, yes, yes, yes, we need more accountability, yes, yes, yes, we need to have school or classroom sizes, yes, yes, yes. You know, you need to make sure that you show up on time for school and so forth and so on. But when it comes to the actual accountability with the teachers' unions, which in my opinion has - had a literally a stranglehold on the American education system for the last 30 or 40 years, he has not been as hard-edged as some people would like for him to be.
So I guess to make a long - to answer your question, Farai, it appears that he's a good person, a good school administrator, but only time will tell if, in fact, he's able to do two things. Number one, to make sure No Child Left Behind, the landmark legislation that Ted Kennedy and George Bush pushed through the Senate, it's actually funded to its existing levels. But also, too, to make sure that we understand, we respect, but we also reign in the teachers' union which has been running out of control now for the past 30 years.
CHIDEYA: Sharp elbows. You mean that literally, because he is a champion college basketball player, and I guess he and the senator can spend some time on the court. Donna, what's your impression of him?
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, first of all, let me just say that he is in charge of the third largest school district in America. He has improved student performance, graduation rates are up. He has worked very closely, not just with administrators and teachers, but parents. He's tough. I think he's a great choice. He will help reform the national No Child Left Behind law. He will work with all of the various partners at the table, which includes the teachers' union. And I think he is going to be a terrific secretary of education. Margaret Spelling, who is the current secretary of education, gave him high marks. And I have every reason to believe that President-elect Obama chose him because he knows that Mr. Duncan can get the job done.
CHIDEYA: All right. Let's take a quick look at Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for agriculture. What's that going to do, Robert?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well, you know, for a long time, the Department of Agriculture has always been on the back burner. But now, when we take a look at mad cow disease, when we take a look at organic stuff and we take a look at sustainable farming, we now know that agriculture and farming is our very way of life. It's the overall fabric of our way of life. Former Governor Vilsack comes from a agriculture state. Agriculture is the number one issue in about 40 states in this country, believer or not. In California, in Pennsylvania, in Texas and so forth, when you take a look at the overall sustainability of agriculture, candidly speaking, Governor Vilsack is a very good choice.
And I got to give you - I got to give President-elect Obama credit. He is doing a very reasonable, common-sense approach path towards selecting his cabinet, to the point where Vice President Cheney, Secretary Spellings, as Donna said, and a few other folks, have said, you know what, this is actually not a bad cabinet that President-elect Obama is putting together. It's moderate to center, it's very, very thoughtful, and more importantly these are individuals that actually know what they're doing. It appears that they know what they're doing. Only time will tell. But on the surface, it is so far so good.
CHIDEYA: All right. I want to get to this, because, you know, it is just so crazy. I'm talking about Minnesota. Republican incumbent Norm Coleman is holding a razor-thin lead over comedian-turned-politician Al Franken. And you know, ballots are being recounted, probably massaged and buttered by hand, who knows what's going on? What do you guys think is going to happen? Donna?
Ms. BRAZILE: First of all, I think that what the canvassing review board, made up of the secretary of sate, two Supreme Court justices, their guiding principle will likely be, count every vote. We know that Coleman has more challenges right now than Franken, which means that Franken will likely pick up votes. But you know, Minnesota is known for their clean election laws, and I have to believe at the end of the day, with so many players at the table, that we will get to the bottom of it, and Minnesota will soon send a senator to the United States Congress.
CHIDEYA: You know, there's been a lot of talk in countries like Zimbabwe and Kenya about power-sharing agreements. Do you think that, Robert, we could ever have like co-senators just sharing one seat, you know, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, like a job-share kind of thing?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well, probably not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Just kidding.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: And the reason why, obviously, is because we have a Constitution that is very clear, that every single state obviously gets two United States senators, one junior senator, one senior senator. Donna is right. Minnesota, as liberal as it is in terms of the Democrats just outnumbering the Republicans, it's a very fair system. And I would make the argument that the Democratic officials there have been overly sensitive to the fact that not only do they have fair elections, but they're also being extremely deferential as well as fair to Norm Coleman, who is the incumbent senator.
There are roughly about a thousand disputed ballots between the two, and I have no doubt whatsoever that Minnesota will get it right. And they're doing it the right way. They're taking their time, they're stepping back, and although the clock literally is ticking, the U.S. senate is scheduled to reconvene on January 3rd, they're saying we want to make sure that we do this right. And again, it goes back to my original point with Illinois. We want to make sure that the people's voices are heard, and heard very, very clearly.
CHIDEYA: All right. Guys…
Ms. BRAZILE: I have to agree with Robert. It must be Christmas, we are agreeing on Vilsack and also Minnesota, that it will be resolved some time in the next few weeks.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Farai, it's the whole season in the air, you know, the whole Christmas season. But also too, I did bring a mistletoe for Donna.
Ms. BRAZILE: He's my first love on the Republican side, you know that.
CHIDEYA: Oh, my goodness. All right, we're going to have to keep a PG-13. And on that note, enjoy the mistletoe. Take care.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Happy holidays!
CHIDEYA: Happy holidays.
Ms. BRAZILE: Happy holidays! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
CHIDEYA: Absolutely. We were talking to Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Robert Traynham, the D.C. bureau chief for the Comcast cable network CN8. They both joined us from NPR's headquarters in Washington.