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Senate Do-Over

John Moe

Julia Barton

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Senator John Durkin
(US Senate Historical Office)

The 98 members of the US Senate got to work this week. Yep. Ninety-eight. Barack Obama's former Illinois seat is still vacant. In a mini-drama earlier this week, Roland Burris, the man picked by now-impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, showed up to present his Senate credentials but wasn't seated. Yet.

Here in Minnesota, a state canvassing board declared Democrat Al Franken the winner by 225 votes. Republican incumbent Norm Coleman immediately challenged that decision in court, and the fate of this Senate seat may take months to resolve.

Crazy times. But if you want some perspective on "crazy" in US politics, try 1974. In August of that year, President Richard Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal. And the craziness spilled into the Congressional elections that November.

In New Hampshire 1974 US Senate race, Republican Louis Wyman defeated Democrat John Durkin on Election Day by 355 votes. Durkin demanded a recount, which showed to him win by ten. Then the state's Ballot Law Commission stepped in and examined the results. On Christmas Eve 1974, the commission declared Wyman the winner by TWO votes.

The Republican governor pronounced Wyman New Hampshire's Senator, but Durkin wasn't about to let that happen.

"My recollection is …that both of us wanted the Senate to take a look at it. I'm not sure that Louis was as vocal on the issue as I was. But I think deep down inside, neither of us wanted to be there with a checkered flag flying behind us. The Senate's a tough enough job with full credentials. If you're there on a raincheck, you know, it's pretty near impossible," Durkin recalls.

So the Senate agreed to examine the recount. It went to the Rules Committee, at the time five Democrats and three Republicans. Wyman and Durkin both presented the committee with their versions of what was wrong with the recount. The disputed ballots were brought down to Washington. The committee kept deadlocking--one of its Democrats sided with the Republicans on almost every vote, even procedural ones. Winter dragged into summer, and nothing was getting resolved. John Durkin says CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd summarized it best.

"One day Roger walks by and he says, 'Hey Durkin, don't you realize that neither side wants you?' And I said, 'What the hell do you mean?' And he says, 'Well, if you get seated, the Republicans lose members on four of the major committees. The Democrats have already got, without you, have already got a veto-proof majority.'"

Summer comes, and the Senate still hasn't figured out who New Hampshire elected as its Senator the year before. Republicans seek to have the seat vacated so there can be a new election. Most accounts say Durkin resisted--he remembers it otherwise--but at any rate, there finally was a run-off on September 16, 1975. And Durkin won, this time by 27,000 votes.

Durkin lost his bid for re-election in 1980--the year the Ronald Reagan swept the New Hampshire primary. Louis Wyman died in nearly seven years ago.

John Durkin is now a retired attorney in Manchester, N.H. He's been watching the Illinois and Minnesota Senate battles with a lot of interest.

"The only advice I would have--and I really don't see any need for it from what their record is--is don't let the exasperation of the situation push you into saying something that you're going to regret later on," he says.

And Durkin says it's actually a good thing the process in Minnesota is taking so long. Sometimes democracy is agonizing and messy, but it's better than rushing the outcome.

"My mother used to say 'Haste makes waste.' But haste may make not waste, but haste may rob a number of people of their Constitutional right to get an answer about who won. And they don't want to give that away," he says.

A few years after the ordeal, the Senate History office interviewed Floyd Riddick, who was Senate Parlimentarian back in 1974. He remembered the months of poring over scrawled ballots from New Hampshire and sincerely prayed that the Senate would never, ever get involved in a state recount again. He said of the whole thing, "Shakespeare had a play entitled--which is very suitable for this--'Much Ado About Nothing.'"

So keep that in mind when you finally get out of court, Al Franken and Norm Coleman. It could still get worse. Because it already has.

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  • By Paul Chernick

    From Lexington, MA, 01/10/2009

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