McHugh appointment puts Aubertine in tricky spot

President Obama has selected Republican Congressman John McHugh to be the secretary of the Army, a very significant position. As unlikely as it seems, I know John McHugh pretty well. This falls under the category of: the older you get the more people you know. That’s OK until you start to forget who they are.

I knew John McHugh when he was a fairly conservative and important member of the New York state Legislature. When he got to Congress representing the North Country of New York, he became a regular rotating interview on my Congressional Corner segment on public radio. There are a couple of things you have to know about him. He is one of the nicest people around. He is passionate about protecting the men and women of the armed services. Much of that can be seen through his work on the Armed Services Committee in Congress. He has proven himself so adept at working with the other party that Chairman Ike Skelton, the Democrat, gave an incredibly moving recent testimonial to McHugh in his committee.

Obama of course, is nobody’s fool. He is not only savvy about policy but he and his people (Rahm Emanuel) know a thing about politics. You know the old saw about the butterfly flapping its wings on one continent and causing havoc in another? This nomination of McHugh has a similar political potential. The Democrats now find themselves in quite a conundrum. Their ability to pass legislation in the state Senate comes down to a few votes.

This is important to remember because the leading candidate for McHugh’s soon-to-be- vacant congressional seat is one state Sen. Darrel Aubertine who defied all predictions and took a state Senate seat in an upstate New York district that was supposed to be a Republican stronghold. That makes him a natural prospect to win McHugh’s congressional seat for the Democrats. This opportunity has to be incredibly tempting for Aubertine. So ask yourself this question: suppose you were a state senator and had a chance to run for the lofty United States House of Representatives. Would you do it? Oh come on, wouldn’t you rather have “congressman” on your gravestone than “state senator?” Of course you would, and that is the conundrum. If Aubertine leaves, the Democrats in the Senate are in deep trouble because there is a good chance that his replacement will more likely resemble the Republican majority in his district. To make the whole thing even more tempting for Aubertine, he gets what politicians call a “free ride” if he runs for the seat. This means he doesn’t risk losing his state Senate seat by running because this would be a special election. If he ran for the seat at the regular time, he would have to take that risk.

Of course Obama knows this, as do the political minions around him. I suspect they just don’t care. They are going to need a lot of Democratic votes in the House of Representatives for things like health care and other progressive initiatives. So far, the Republicans in the House have not been helpful. Of course there are other candidates who the Democrats will be able to field, but it is unlikely that any of them will have the guts or political will to take on Aubertine.

Obama has recently shown that he is not unwilling to pick up a phone and dictate who shall run and who shall not, particularly in a primary situation. That’s why Kirsten Gillibrand has a pretty clear field in her U.S. Senate election. If Obama decides he wants Aubertine in the Congress, he’ll get him. On the other hand, if the president, leaned on by New York’s Democratic elite who need the Democrats at reapportionment time, asks Aubertine not to run, my bet is that he won’t. Time will tell.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/12/09

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