Kaufman aims to make impact in Senate

"Mr. Kaufman Goes to Washington" doesn't quite have the same ring to it as the title of the 1939 classic film featuring a Mr. Smith.

But ever since Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., Engineering '60 and a senior lecturing fellow in the School of Law, was named to the U.S. Senate in November, several media outlets have made the assumption that he is the powerless handpicked successor carrying out a broader political agenda.

News sources have labeled Kaufman as a "placeholder senator" keeping Vice President Joe Biden's former Senate seat "warm" until his son Beau Biden is ready to claim it as the Democratic candidate in a 2010 special election. Kaufman's term will expire after two years.

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden is currently serving as a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard, and he announced that he would not accept a Senate appointment in November after he was deployed in Iraq.

After Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner made Kaufman her pick to replace Joe Biden Nov. 24, 2008, Kaufman said he would not be a candidate for re-election in 2010.

"I'm opposed to appointing people who are going to run, because incumbency breeds advantage," Kaufman said in an interview with The Chronicle. "Seriously, I'm the farthest thing from a placeholder. I'm getting out in November of 2010. Everybody starts out even."

Kaufman has voted with the Democratic party more than 96 percent of the time in his seven weeks on the job, according to the Washington Post. His connections to Biden have made his transition smoother, Kaufman said.

Others have also noted that his close political alignment with Biden makes him a good replacement.

"He's got values that are very close to the senator that he is replacing," said Christopher Schroeder, Charles S. Murphy professor of law and public policy.

President Barack Obama signed the economic stimulus package into law last week. Kaufman voted for the bill in the U.S. Senate Feb. 10. He then delivered his second speech from the Senate floor to pledge his support for the measure.

"All Senators can see with their own eyes that this is the greatest economic challenge we have faced since the Depression," he said in the speech. "Only the federal government has the ability to put enough money back into the economy to turn our economy around."

Kaufman noted that his long experience in the private sector and his MBA from the Wharton School of Business will be useful in tackling the problems associated with the current economic crisis. He has established close personal relationships with veteran legislators like Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Kerry, D-Mass., during his long career as a U.S. Senate staffer.

Congressional knowledge, D.C. savvy and a down-to-earth demeanor are the traits that will make Kaufman a successful senator, said Katharine Bartlett, former dean of the School of Law and A. Kenneth Pye professor of law.

"I feel like if there were more Ted Kaufmans around and not people who were on the stage running for some higher post or on the stage trying to burnish their reputation, we would all have more confidence in the Senate leadership," she said. "He's not thinking in terms of his legacy."

After receiving an undergraduate degree in engineering from Duke, Kaufman took a job with DuPont Company in 1966. He became involved in Delaware politics and volunteered for Biden's Senate campaign in 1972. Biden's unlikely victory meant that he became a member of the new senator's staff. Kaufman served as chief of staff for Biden from 1976 to 1995.

"I used to pinch myself then," he said. "I thought working in the Senate was such a great honor."

At Duke, Kaufman has taught classes for the School of Law and the Fuqua School of Business. He also served as co-chair of the law school's Center for the Study of Congress. He said he never expected to end up in the U.S. Senate.

"This is far from a dream come true for him, because I'm sure he never dreamt of this," said Schroeder, who has co-taught a class with Kaufman on "The Congress" for more than 10 years. "It just totally came up out of the blue."

Many speculated that Minner would appoint Lt. Gov. John Carney to Biden's vacant seat. The unexpectedness of Kaufman's selection was evident in a Nov. 24 statement issued by Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., in response to the appointment. Carper praised the choice of Kaufman and acknowledged that many Delawareans had hoped to see Carney fill the role. The statement reads that the appointment of Carney would have been "an excellent choice too," but that it was "not in the cards at this time."

Kaufman said he can focus on working for Delaware and serving the country for two years without being distracted by the pressures associated with re-election.

"There's no limit to what you can do if you don't care who gets the credit," he said.

Kaufman also served as a member of the advisory board for the Obama-Biden Transition Project. He will have a role in shaping important decisions in the early years of Obama's administration through his positions on the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on the Judiciary in the U.S. Senate.

"The Congress isn't a place that you can really expect to get anything big done in two years, but maybe you can get some balls rolling," Schroeder said.

Schroeder and Bartlett said they hope Kaufman will continue teaching at Duke after his U.S. Senate term expires in 2010. Kaufman teaches a weekly class in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday nights for Duke law students who are working in the capital this semester. Bartlett said it must be a "rush" for law students to interact with a U.S. Senator weekly.

Kaufman, who is 69 years old, said his age, experience in Washington and business expertise will be beneficial to the Congress, especially because he will not have to worry about publicizing his accomplishments for a campaign.

"This is going to be a wonderful experience and the problems, unfortunately, are so incredibly difficult that just having a slight impact [is significant]," he said. "At the end of two years, I'm going to be very happy with what I've accomplished."

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