Posted: Aug. 3, 2010
MUSICAL POLITICS WITH TOO MANY CHAIRS
By Celia Cohen
Ted Kaufman is winding down his time as a U.S. senator. Not even a lot of people in politics have figured out how soon that is. Not even though afterwards, it could get very messy.
Kaufman is a parenthetical senator, a Democrat tucked into office by appointment. Because of decades of work alongside Joe Biden, he was the closest the state could get to still having Biden for a senator after a double election to another six-year term and the vice presidency in 2008.
For Biden, it was a triple hedge. He could be vice president, or he could be a senator, or he could arrange for his political alter ego to replace him temporarily.
Never mind it could really have been a quadruple hedge, if his son Beau Biden had not put a stop to it by running for re-election this year as attorney general instead of the Senate seat.
By state law, Kaufman's tenure lasts only until the election. Literally, until the election in November. He does not stay on until the next Congress convenes in early January. He is out in three months.
Delaware gets its new senator so fast, Joe Biden had better be careful if he shows up for Return Day. It is the vice president's job to swear in the new ones. He could find himself hustled to administer the oath for his old seat behind the Sussex County Courthouse, where the politicians party. Every minute of seniority matters.
Kaufman has known all along when he would leave office. Otherwise, word is just getting around. Also, the ramifications.
The leading Senate candidates are both officeholders who would leave a vacancy behind. If the winner is Chris Coons, the Democratic underdog, the follow-up would be straightforward, although cumbersome and inconvenient. If it is Mike Castle, the Republican front-runner, then watch out.
Coons is the New Castle County executive with half of his four-year term to go. His election would mean Paul Clark, the Democratic president of the County Council, would move up, and a special election would be scheduled to find another council president.
Castle is the state's lone member in the House of Representatives. His election would leave the office open until the 112th Congress is seated in early January.
A House vacancy gets filled only one way. By election, not appointment. The U.S. Constitution says the state's executive, in this case the governor, shall call an election if there is a vacancy. Likewise, state law says an election shall be held, on a day the governor shall determine.
No ifs, ands or buts here. Only shalls.
It would make sense if the next representative-elect, presumably either Democrat John Carney or Republican Michele Rollins, could take office a little early, but this is a democracy. What makes sense is not necessarily legal.
It looks like Delaware would be forced to hold a special election for a term dribbling from, oh, right before Christmas to just after New Year's, less time than it takes for a true love to distribute everything from 12 drummers drumming and 11 pipers piping to a partridge in a pear tree.
No one seems to know what to make of it.
The election department? "News to us. We're looking into it," said Commissioner Elaine Manlove.
The governor's office? "That's an interesting question and one we haven't asked ourselves yet," said Brian Selander, a senior aide to Jack Markell, the Democratic governor.
The political operatives? "Let's get through Nov. 2," said Erik Schramm, the Democratic chair for New Castle County.
Legal minds looking for loopholes have not come up with any. One lawyer, determined not to be sucked into this morass, nevertheless blurted, "If Castle wins, you've got a special election. Merry Christmas, ho ho ho. And who runs?"
Yikes. Delaware could turn into the Afghanistan of politics. No good way out.