Posted: Dec. 11, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The halls of Congress hum with former aides who yearned to get elected themselves.

Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, once worked on a congressional staff. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, was a Navy liaison to the Senate before the Arizona voters sent him there.

One of the most famously driven was Lyndon Johnson, who pushed upward from his lot as a Democratic congressman's secretary to Senate majority leader to the White House.

This was not for Ted Kaufman.

"I've been asked, did you dream about being a senator? Absolutely, positively never. I never ran for anything. Never ran for representative to student council. I never ran for anything my entire life," Kaufman said.

That mindset could make Kaufman the least likely member to be rounding out his first year in office, but there he is, the junior Democratic senator from Delaware.

It is arguable that Kaufman is even less likely than the surprising Roland Burris, the Illinois Democrat shoehorned into Barack Obama's old Senate seat by Rod Blagojevich in a final act of flippancy before losing his governorship with the feds closing in.

Burris was not a surprise to himself. He ran for scads of statewide offices, sometimes even winning, and already built himself a mausoleum emblazoned with the honors he accumulated but with space left for one like the Senate to crown it all. This is a life begging for a memoir, The Audacity of Audacity.

Kaufman's ascent nevertheless had a certain inevitability to it, once Obama made Joe Biden his candidate for vice president and the Democratic ticket barreled toward Election Day '08. Here at home, Biden also was winning his seventh Senate term and would have to be replaced.

It was not going to be son Beau Biden. He had pledged to spend four years as attorney general, and he was bound for Iraq with the National Guard. Besides, he already signaled his disregard for appointments by resisting one for attorney general.

Still, the Bidens are all about the Biden clan, and Kaufman comes close to being a brother, a trusted adviser who has been around since the glorious upset election of 1972 and stayed vitally connected even after resigning as the chief of staff in 1995 to lecture at Duke.

Shortly after the presidential election, Kaufman was flying with Biden and his other son Hunter Biden to Chicago for a transition team meeting. The Senate appointment was mentioned.

"Hunter just said it," Kaufman said. "Joe came back to me a day or two later and said, I think you'd be great."

Delaware voted for Joe Biden for senator with the knowledge it might not keep him. It meant the voters were entitled to a sort of doppelganger, preferably one familiar enough with the Senate not to squander a gubernatorial appointment lasting two years, until a new senator could be elected.

That argument made sense to Ruth Ann Minner, the Democratic governor nearing the end of her tenure, although not necessarily to a bunch of Democratic legislators who were still mourning John Carney's loss to Jack Markell in the primary for governor.

If the opening had come a century earlier, not in 2009 but 1909, when senators were chosen by the legislature, this column probably would be about Senator Carney and not Senator Kaufman.

Since taking the oath Jan. 16, Kaufman has had one serious break with Joe Biden. That daily train ride home that Biden made memorable? Not for Kaufman. Not at 70 years old with the wear and tear of commuting.

On the days the Senate is in session, Kaufman stays in Washington in an apartment with his wife Lynne, instead of traveling to their house in Greenville, not far from Joe and Jill Biden when they are back in Delaware.

Kaufman has shown there is more to him than some of the cheekier reasons given for his installation. His purpose was not simply to make Tom Carper the senior Democratic senator, or to fashion an interregnum between Joe and Beau, or to guarantee Minner a great seat at the presidential inauguration.

Kaufman has found a niche for himself as that rare Democrat with a business background, a Duke engineering degree, a Wharton MBA and time at DuPont.

He was live on CNBC and Fox Business News on Wednesday, the same day he chaired a Judiciary hearing on financial fraud and Delaware Grapevine was there to watch.

The hearing was notable, and not just because Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, the comedian-turned-senator who is trying earnestly not to be funny, could not help himself and observed, "How proud we are to have Minnesota be the home of the third largest Ponzi scheme."

The hearing was a way for Kaufman to showcase a prime concern of his.

He is an early skeptic of high frequency trading, an ingenuity that has Wall Street's biggest firms employing supercomputers to make thousands of trades a second. It is regarded variously as a new market efficiency or a new market manipulation, and Kaufman is leery because another crisis in confidence for the stock market could be calamitous.

Kaufman's transformation from staffer to senator looks seamless, even if he is adamant about departing when his appointment is up.

"It's like volleyball, the difference between setters and spikers. I'm a setter, not a spiker. Chiefs of staff don't stand around and think that we're second-class citizens. I totally loved my job with Joe Biden," Kaufman said.

This is not so much a case of an understudy stepping up, but more of a stage manager yanked from backstage. In politics as in theatre, the show must go on.

Kaufman has not really thought about what comes next. Maybe more teaching. Certainly on call for Joe Biden. Certainly a return to life behind the scenes, leaving to others the curtain calls he never craved. The mausoleum, too.