Illinois' Lesson for Rhode Island

Jeremy Feigenbaum // Published January 29, 2009 in The Brown Daily Herald

Jeremy Feigenbaum '11: Illinois' lesson for Rhode Island

function goPage(newindex) { currentLocation = getThisPage(); cleanedLocation = ''; // If this is an SHTML request. if (currentLocation.indexOf(".shtml") > -1) { // Detect if this is a request that already has a page specification. if (currentLocation.indexOf("-page") > -1) { cleanedLocation = currentLocation.substring(0, currentLocation.indexOf("-page")) + '.shtml'; } else { cleanedLocation = currentLocation; } // Only add the "-pageX" suffix when the page index is higher than 1. if (newindex != 1) { cleanedLocation = cleanedLocation.substring(0, cleanedLocation.indexOf(".shtml")) + '-page' + newindex + '.shtml'; } } else { // Only add the "-pageX" suffix when the page index is higher than 1. if (newindex != 1) { cleanedLocation = currentLocation + '&page=' + newindex; } else { cleanedLocation = currentLocation; } } document.location = cleanedLocation; } function getThisPage() { currentURL = '' + window.document.location; thispageresult = ''; if (currentURL.indexOf("?page=") > -1) { currentURL = currentURL.substring(0, currentURL.indexOf('?page=')); thispageresult = currentURL; } else if (currentURL.indexOf("&page=") > -1) { currentURL = currentURL.substring(0, currentURL.indexOf('&page=')); thispageresult = currentURL; } else { thispageresult = currentURL; } // Make sure the URL generated by this fuctnion is compatible with mirror image. thispageresult = thispageresult.substring(7, thispageresult.length); thispageresult = thispageresult.substring(thispageresult.indexOf('/')+1, thispageresult.length); thispageresult = basehref + thispageresult; if (thispageresult.indexOf('sourcedomain') > -1) { thispageresult = thispageresult.substring(0, thispageresult.indexOf('?')); } return thispageresult; Two words: Rod Blagojevich. For those of you who were abroad this past winter or simply refuse to watch the news, Blagojevich is the still-governor of Illinois who allegedly tried to trade Barack Obama's former senate seat for campaign donations and lucrative private-sector jobs.

Blagojevich promised not to appoint anyone to the seat after the public learned of his misdoings, but wound up sending former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to Washington anyway. This gave Senate Democrats days of heartburn. They promised not to seat Burris but capitulated shortly thereafter.

While selling a Senate seat is probably the worst scandal involving a gubernatorial appointment in recent years, it is not the only one. After Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter to the Senate seat he vacated when he became governor of Alaska, voters punished him in the subsequent election by voting for a little-known mayor named Sarah Palin in the Republican primary. The backlash from a nepotistic appointment helped Palin rise to power.

So how does this affect the Ocean State? If one of the Rhode Island's senators vacates his seat, the governor appoints someone to take his place. So what can the voters do? They must wait until the next round of federal elections to pick their senator. For up to two years, an appointed senator can vote however he pleases and author whatever legislation he chooses, ostensibly representing the Rhode Island citizens who had no choice but to accept the governor's decision.

Before 1913, U.S. senators were selected by state legislators - apparently, voters were incapable of picking their own representatives. The 17th Amendment went a long way toward expanding democracy by allowing voters to pick their senators in general elections, but made no such provision for filling senate vacancies. As a result, governors have the power to fill vacancies in many states.

Rhode Island governors have recently made use of this undemocratic power. In November of 1999, Governor Lincoln Almond appointed the mayor of Warwick, Lincoln Chafee '75, to fill the seat of his late father, John Chafee. Lincoln Chafee was arguably the best choice. He was mayor of Rhode Island's second largest city and was already an announced candidate for the upcoming election. But his appointment raises questions about the legitimacy of the process.

Is it fair that, as a U.S. senator, Lincoln Chafee had the ability to raise more money and attract additional media attention? In the next election, newly minted incumbent-Chafee had substantial electoral advantages over his Democratic opponent because the governor decided that he should.

Thankfully, Chafee's appointment may be the last of its kind. One organization, FairVote Rhode Island, is working to institute special elections. When I spoke with Matt Sledge '08, the group's executive director, he said he felt optimistic about the likelihood that a bill mandating special elections would pass.

When David Segal, D-Dist. 2 introduced this legislation one year ago, voters and reporters paid little attention. The House Judiciary Committee simply recommended that the measure be held for further study. I hope that Illinois provided all the additional information that they needed.

Perhaps some good can come from Blagojevich's corruption. "People have finally decided to take a look at this issue," Sledge said. "Letting a governor make an appointment to a federal elected office is a problem. And it is a flaw that is very easily corrected."

All it takes is one bill, and Chris Fierro, D-Dist. 51 has already introduced legislation in the State House similar to Segal's measure. "A U.S. Senate seat is too important to be appointed by any one person, be they Democrat or Republican," Fierro told me in an interview. Time and time again, senators shape national policy by placing holds on legislation, even relatively uncontroversial bills involving land protection. That is far too much power for any unelected man or woman to hold.

Fierro also said that the image of Rhode Island as corrupt has kept some businesses away from the state. By reforming the appointment process, Rhode Island can clean up its image and attract new jobs in the aftermath of the Blagojevich scandal.

Jeremy Feigenbaum '11 is a political science concentrator from Teaneck, New Jersey. He can be reached at