Short-timer replaces Biden in Senate

By Thomas Fitzgerald

Inquirer Staff Writer

WILMINGTON - Boxes marked "Biden" sat in the hallways, and stacks of framed photographs with dangling archival tags leaned against the wall in the 20th-floor office suite of Delaware's new U.S. senator last week.


The sense that Vice President Biden has not really left goes beyond the memorabilia, the familiar office telephone number, and the dozens of veteran staff members who've stayed on the job.


That's because his appointed successor, Sen. Ted Kaufman, 69, has been one of the vice president's tightest friends and advisers for nearly four decades.


"People keep asking me where I disagree with Biden, and I'm having a hard time finding something," Kaufman said in an interview. "The reason I went to work for him - and worked for him so long - is, I never met an elected official I agreed with as much as him, right back from the beginning."


But Kaufman said that if he clashes with the administration on some issue, he would enjoy the competitive challenge of besting Biden.


Both men share a Catholic, middle-class background and a liberal-center political bent. While Biden grew up in Scranton and Delaware, Kaufman is a Philadelphia native; he lived in Logan and West Mount Airy, and graduated from Central High School.


Another difference: Kaufman is low-key, befitting his background as an engineer, while Biden is famously loquacious.


Gov. Ruth Ann Minner announced her intention to appoint Kaufman a couple of weeks after the Nov. 4 election, catching many Delaware political players by surprise.


Speculation began immediately that Kaufman was appointed as a loyal placeholder for the vice president's oldest son, state Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden 3d, now in Iraq with his National Guard unit.


That's because Kaufman made it clear at the outset that he wasn't going to run next year in the special election to fill the last four years of the vice president's Senate term, calling it "part of my deal" with Minner, who left office in January. In making the choice, Minner passed over other politicians who were interested in running to keep the job.


Not surprisingly, Kaufman rejects the placeholder label.


"I don't understand it from the real facts," he said. "What I'm doing is guaranteeing that in 2010 anybody who wants to run . . . can run, and no one has the advantage of having been the incumbent. I am for an open election."


Younger Biden bows out

The younger Biden said before his Iraq deployment that he did not want to be considered for the Senate appointment. He is thought to be interested in running for the seat in the 2010 election, but the only public statement he has made about it is that he would like to be reelected attorney general. "I know for a fact that Beau hasn't decided what he's going to do," Kaufman said.


Kaufman's association with Joe Biden began in 1972, when Kaufman ran the voter-turnout organization for Biden's insurgent Senate campaign. The cause seemed hopeless when polls about two months before the election put him 30 percentage points behind, but Biden wound up winning narrowly; he asked Kaufman to work for him in Washington.


Kaufman took a one-year leave from his job as an engineer at DuPont Co. - and never went back. He was Biden's chief of staff from 1976 through 1995.


Since leaving the Senate, Kaufman has taught courses on Congress at his alma mater, Duke University. (He also has an M.B.A. from the Wharton School at Penn.) He had a consulting firm and served from 1995 until last year on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a federal agency that oversees government-sponsored international broadcasting.


"I'm philosophically opposed to people getting appointed and then running for office and using this as a springboard," Kaufman said, in explaining his decision not to run for Senate next year. Plus, he said, he knows he'd be lousy at the rituals that candidates must endure, though he loves the background substance of legislating.


The reality check

Kaufman "never got wrapped up in the Washington scene," and Biden relied on him for a "bit of an outside perspective, a reality check," said Ron Klain, the vice president's chief of staff, who worked with both men as general counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Klain also said he thought that Kaufman's training as an engineer set him apart in a profession dominated by lawyers. "We lawyers like to focus on particular cases - you pile case upon case, and when you add it all up you've got a rule," Klain said. "Ted has more of an engineer's mind. . . . He often sees how things are connected, how a particular policy decision will affect an overall system."


Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) has been a friend since 1980, when she arrived at the Capitol as chief of staff to the newly elected Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D., Conn).


"I think the only other time I'd been in Washington was on my high school class trip - it was a whole new world for me," DeLauro said. "Ted was willing to take the time to teach me how to do the job and to try to do it well. He would say encouraging things: 'Take it day by day. Listen and learn. You can do this job.' . . . He's just a wonderful human being."


Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) called Kaufman a "low-key, sensible guy" who was Biden's right hand in the Senate for many years. "He'd make a great permanent senator," Specter said.


Instead, Kaufman said he was confident he would walk away content.


"I'm not about having a bunch of bills with 'Kaufman' on them," he said. "What I'm about is at the end of two years being able to say that I tried as hard as I could to help make the country a better place."


Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.