GOVERNOR-ELECT Pete Wilson of California said the other...

THEO LIPPMAN

January 05, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN

GOVERNOR-ELECT Pete Wilson of California said the other day that when he takes office Monday he will promptly appoint John Seymour to serve out the two years of his (Wilson's) term in the U.S. Senate.

The choice surprised California journalists and politicians. So far as I can tell, none of them predicted Seymour, a state senator and close personal friend of Wilson.

Wilson interviewed about two dozen possibilities (but not Seymour). This process produced many stories predicting this or that person would be nominated. Several members of the House of Representatives were thought to have the inside track at one point or another. My own favorite was Rep. Jerry Lewis. I hoped he'd get it, and then Dean Martin would beat him in 1992.

Don't scoff. Californians like show biz politicians. In 1964, voters ousted appointed Sen. Pierre Salinger with movie song-and-dance-man George Murphy.

That brings up an interesting point about appointed senators. They usually lose. Don Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office provided me with a list of the appointed senators since 1960. There have been 33. Of the 26 who subsequently ran for election, only 11 won. (One winner was the present majority leader, Sen. George Mitchell of Maine.)

What happened to one loser may happen to John Seymour. Seymour offends many conservative Republicans because he recently switched some litmus-test positions. He used to be pro-life, now he's pro-choice. He used to be for off-shore oil drilling, now he's against it.

In 1970 the appointed senator from New York was Charles Goodell. He had been a conservative, but became liberal once in the Senate. So Vice President Spiro Agnew, his fellow Republican, campaigned against him, calling him "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party" (a reference to a celebrity recipient of a sex change operation).

Despite doing very well with the transsexual bloc vote, Goodell lost to a right-wing Republican running as a third-party candidate. (I knew he was a goner when Christine took offense at being compared to a liberal Republican.)

Does the fact that voters reject more appointed senators than they keep in office say something about the quality of the governors' choices? I think not. I think it is just that Americans are jealous of their right to select senators.

After all, it was a hard-won gain. State legislators got to pick U.S. senators until 1913. John Q. Public was shut out. (Except that in some states in the years leading up to 1913 the public forced legislators to elect the winners of primaries.)

The most obvious evidence of Americans' resistance to hand-picked senators has to do with governors who make a deal with their successors, then resign and get appointed to the Senate.

Since direct election of senators began 80 years ago, nine governors have pulled this stunt. Eight lost as soon as an election rolled around.

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