Next week, Chris Coons is scheduled formally to fill the U.S. Senate seat once held by Joe Biden - and Delaware will lose a valuable public servant. That's no reflection on Christine O'Donnell. It's a tip of the hat to Ted Kaufman, who leaves behind a worthy imprint.
Two years ago, Kaufman was selected to fill his boss's old seat. At the time, he pledged not to run in the special election that took place last week. He honored the deal, and in the intervening two years, he established himself as one of the Senate's most substantive, earnest and irascible members.
Kaufman today is quick to extinguish any thought that his independence was born of the knowledge that his tenure would be short-lived.
"There's not a single decision I made that I would not have made if I were running," he once told me.
Speaking of running, Kaufman told me that one advantage he had over colleagues was not having to commit literally half of his time to fund-raising. Consequently, he was able to delve into what became his signature issue: Wall Street regulation and financial-sector reform.
Kaufman established himself as perhaps the most vocal advocate for breaking up the "too big to fail" firms, despite not being a member of the Senate Banking Committee. His work earned him a national following over the last two years. And fittingly, when I asked about his gravest concerns as he prepares to leave, he immediately addressed the economy.
He first mentioned the country's spate of foreclosures and said he's apprehensive that firms that packaged residential-backed mortgage securities, casually sold them off, and ignored ratings agencies' reservations haven't been properly reined in. He worries about Wall Street traders' use of computer technology to engage in high-frequency trading.
Kaufman laments that we are educating college students who are more intent on making deals than products. In 2007, he told me, 11 percent of MIT's graduating engineers went to work on Wall Street. The country's economic future, Kaufman told me, should be a high-tech one - with emphasis on creating and implementing things like wind and geothermal energies.
"The thing that bothers me the most - this sounds funny, I have to laugh myself when I say it - it isn't just that they're not going to be engineers, figuring out what we're going to do about biomedical and geothermal and the rest of that. They're on Wall Street and they're involved in this very thing that's really weakening our market, weakening our ability to bring out initial public offers in corporations, weakening our ability to compete internationally," he told me.
As he exits the U.S. Senate, he offered some good news. Joe Biden's former chief of staff is well-versed in how things work inside the Beltway, and sought to disabuse me of a popular notion.
"Divisive, but not uncivil" was the way he assessed relations among his colleagues.
"Are there differences of opinion in the Senate? Abso-posa-tively," he told me. "But go watch CSPAN. You don't see senators shouting at each other or anything like that. People shout about what's happening. But there's much more civility than there was, say, 10 or 15 years ago."
"It's not a civility thing. It's the fact that the country is really, really, really split. And its representatives are therefore split, too."
In reflecting on his service, Kaufman disputes any assessment that sees him as a walking argument for term limits.
"I am the opposite," he said. "I have 22 years on the staff. The point I would make to people when they say term limits is ... 22 years? The staff would run the Congress!"
If they're all like him, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.
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