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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 8:07 am | Fair 47º


Mark Shields: Senate Appointments a Double-Edged Sword

They can be dangerous to the political health of governors, who usually end up making more enemies than friends.

Among others, James Michael Curley, the charismatically colorful Irish-American politician who was elected to the Congress, mayor of Boston and governor of Massachusetts, candidly observed, “Every time you do a favor for a constituent, you make nine enemies and one ingrate.”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields
This also applies to contemporary governors — David Paterson of New York and Bill Ritter of Colorado — who each must name one individual in his state (from among dozens of eager applicants) to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Illinois, of course, also has a Senate vacancy to fill, but that is an altogether different tale of unorganized crime.

Senate appointments can be dangerous to the political health of the governors who make them. Take the case of one of my favorite human beings who ever held public office, former Ohio Gov. John “Jack” Gilligan (for whom I worked).

Gilligan, even his severest critics would concede, was an energetic reformer who rescued from indifference and inaction — with major increases in state spending — Ohio’s programs in education, mental health, welfare and the environment. He initiated and passed serious reforms in workers’ health and safety and consumer protection. He also appointed a fellow Democrat to the U.S. Senate and put his own re-election at risk.

Here is the cautionary tale today’s governors might reflect upon. In late 1973, President Richard Nixon, already feeling the heat from the Watergate investigations, needed a new attorney general who could win Senate confirmation. Nixon named Ohio Republican Sen. William Saxbe — who had already announced he would retire the next year — to be AG.

Gilligan, up for re-election in 1974, was faced with choosing a replacement. The problem was that two heavyweight Ohio Democrats who did not like each other — Howard Metzenbaum, the 1970 Democratic Senate nominee, and the man whom Metzenbaum had defeated for that Senate nomination, former astronaut John Glenn — were both committed to a bruising showdown in the upcoming May Senate primary.

Rather than choose a respected former college president or a young, talented elected office-holder to go to the Senate and allow primary voters to pick between Metzenbaum and Glenn, Gilligan, responding to the importuning of liberals and labor, chose Metzenbaum, who, true to the Curley rule, didn’t brim with gratitude. Meanwhile, Glenn was, quite simply, furious at Gilligan.

The Senate primary battle was bitter. Metzenbaum, apparently hoping to capitalize on his anti-Vietnam War credentials, regularly referred to his opponent as “Col. Glenn” and went so far as to suggest that Glenn had “never held a job.”

The two Democrats met in the traditional Cleveland City Club debate on May 3, 1974, four days before the primary. Here is Glenn’s rebuttal to Metzenbaum’s charge that he “had never held a job”:

“I served 23 years in the United States Marine Corps. I was through two wars. I flew 149 missions. My plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on 12 different occasions.

“I was in the space program. It wasn’t my checkbook. It was my life that was on the line. ...

“You go with me to any Gold Star mother and tell her that her son did not hold a job. ... You go with me on Memorial Day coming up, and you stand in Arlington National Cemetery — where I have more friends than I like to remember — and you tell me those people didn’t have a job.

“I tell you, Howard Metzenbaum, you should be on your knees every day of your life thanking God that there were some men — some men — who held a job ... and their self-sacrifice is what has made this country possible. I’ve held a job, Howard.”

What occurred immediately in the room was 22 seconds of uninterrupted applause, followed in the state, 96 hours later, by Glenn’s 91,000-vote primary victory.

In that fall’s general election, Glenn — who would defeat his Republican opponent by more than a million votes — felt no obligation to give a helping hand to the governor who had appointed his opponent to the Senate. Gilligan lost re-election by just 11,488 votes. A Senate appointment had come back to haunt him.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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