Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mark Shields: A hazardous kind of ‘power’

After the hateful Third Reich of Adolf Hitler was crushed and World War II was won, the 16 American owners of Major League Baseball teams voted 15 to one against desegregating America’s pastime, against allowing blacks to play on the same field with whites.

The commissioner of baseball at that time, A.B. “Happy” Chandler courageously overturned the owners’ vote, which enabled Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color line in the 1947 season. Years later, Democrat Chandler, a former Kentucky governor and U.S. senator, explained his decision: “I thought someday I’d have to meet my Maker, and He’d say, ‘What did you do with those black boys?’ ”

“Happy” Chandler also made U.S. history. In the 97 years since the ratification of the 17th amendment to the Constitution establishing the direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote, nine state governors have resigned their governorships to accept appointment — from the man who just succeeded him as governor — to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Not surprisingly, voters dislike this too-cute procedure that amounts to a governor “appointing “ himself to the Senate. Of the nine governors who did just that, eight of them were punished at the polls and denied election to the Senate.

Only Happy Chandler — who resigned the Kentucky governor’s office on Oct. 9, 1939, and accepted appointment to the Senate the next day — was able to keep his Senate seat by winning the 1940 election. Chandler won a full six-year term in 1942, which he left to accept the commissioner’s job in 1945.

The other eight governors who tried — John Erickson of Montana (1933), Charles Gossett of Idaho (1945), Edward Carville of Nevada (1945), John Hickey of Wyoming (1961), Edwin Mechem of New Mexico (1962), J.

Howard Edmondson of Oklahoma (1963), Donald Russell of South Carolina (1965) and Wendell Anderson of Minnesota (1976) — all were defeated the next time they faced the voters. It may or may not be relevant, but of the nine, New Mexico’s Mechem was the only Republican. All the other “self-appointees” were Democrats.

Because of the recent death of West Virginia’s senior senator, 92-year-old Robert C. Byrd, the Mountaineer State’s current governor, Democrat Joe Manchin, has the power to fill the Senate vacancy. As a tribute to Manchin’s broad appeal (or, maybe, to his deliberate ambiguity), both the West Virginia AFL-CIO and state Chamber of Commerce have urged him to appoint himself to Byrd’s seat.

While admitting to a strong interest in running for the Senate seat, Manchin has, wisely, refused to appoint himself — and rather than having an appointed successor serve until 2012, has instead pushed to hold a special election for the Senate seat this Nov. 2.

One advantage to Manchin of holding the special Senate election on the regularly scheduled Nov. 2 Election Day is that he would not have to give up the governor’s chair (he’s now in the middle of his second four-year term), but any West Virginia member of Congress — read, Republican Shelley Moore Capito — who wants to be senator would have to surrender that House seat to run. If a special Senate election were to be held in 2011, the House members could keep their seats while taking a free shot at the Senate race.

Whatever happens in the West Virginia Senate contest, Joe Manchin appears to have learned what too many governors have failed to grasp: When it comes to making themselves into senators, for governors the Power of Appointment has been Historically Hazardous.