Why is filling a vacant Senate seat suddenly so difficult?

Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential race left his Senate seat vacant and there were a host of qualified Illinois politicians eager to fill it. Gov. Rod Blagojevich had a plan to simplify the selection — sell it to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, this didn’t sit well with federal prosecutors.

In the ensuing uproar over the scandal, the state’s political establishment urged Blagojevich not to fill the seat, that any appointment he made would be tainted. But the governor crossed everybody up by plucking Roland Burris, 71, from political obscurity. Burris had been out of elected office for 13 years and his political resume consisted of five unsuccessful races, one each for senator and mayor and three for governor. The best thing that could be said about his appointment was that the governor had the legal right to make it.

Senate Democrats relented after first embarrassing themselves by threatening not to seat the appointee and Roland Burris is now a U.S. senator.

Blagojevich could claim he was distracted by his arrest on corruption charges but New York Gov. David Patterson had no such excuse. He too had known for some time that he would probably have to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat but he dithered, allowing him ample time to alienate two powerful political dynasties and look clumsy in the process.

Caroline Kennedy, 51, daughter of the late president, had put herself forward for the Senate seat. But she seemed an almost reluctant candidate; she wanted the job but not enough to work for it. Her once bright prospects fell apart and this past week, under ambiguous circumstances, she withdrew.

She at first said it was because of her Uncle Ted’s precarious health but the Massachusetts senator’s camp said he wanted her to have the seat. The governor’s office said Kennedy withdrew because of unnamed issues involving taxes and a nanny. And Patterson apparently never gave a serious look at another aspirant, the state’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, a former Clinton Cabinet officer and son of a three-term New York governor. You have to work hard at making political enemies like these.

In the end, he named a political novice, Kirsten Gillibrand, 42, a sophomore member of Congress. In accepting the appointment, she admitted being a political unknown but hoped that would change over the next two years. Be careful what you wish for.

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