Kaufman faces tricky balancing act
Years on vice president-elect’s staff may help probable successor incorporate Biden’s values with his own views

By NICOLE GAUDIANO — The News Journal

Many lawmakers have grappled with how to balance their constituents’ needs with their own principles. As Ted Kaufman sees it, he’ll have a third consideration when he becomes Delaware’s new senator next month: What would Vice President-elect Joe Biden do?

Biden’s preference may not always prevail in Kaufman’s decisions but it must be part of the equation, given that he was appointed to a seat Biden was elected to retain, Kaufman said.

“It’s clear to me that the people of Delaware are looking for someone that has his values and his views at least reflected in what they’re doing,” he said.

The ability to extrapolate Biden’s views should come easily to Kaufman, 69. He worked for the six-term Democrat for 22 years, including 19 as his chief of staff, and has remained one of his closest advisers for the past 13. Both raised Catholic, they hail from similar backgrounds. Biden has referred to Kaufman as “a brother.”

“Ted was sort of like an alter ego to Biden,” said Mark Gitenstein, a Biden adviser who previously served on his Senate staff.

At the same time, he said, their arguments were “something to behold.”

Gitenstein remembers them yelling behind closed doors, “That’s a ridiculous idea!” and other, more colorful comments. The topic could have been anything on which Biden was voting.

“He loved to argue with Ted because Ted was very good at laying out what the contra arguments were and would sort of hone Biden’s position,” Gitenstein said, mimicking, “‘You can’t make that argument! It doesn’t make any sense!'”

Kaufman said he hasn’t met an elected official he agrees with more on the big issues than Biden. But there are many things that he wants to accomplish in his short period in Washington and he won’t agree with his former boss on everything.

“It has to happen,” he said. “I’m going to cast thousands of votes.”

Talking with Kaufman, it’s hard to imagine the argumentative side. Soft-spoken with a quick smile, his voice competed with the Christmas carols during a wide-ranging interview last week at the Riverfront Market in Wilmington.

He came with no entourage. Just one assistant, Margaret Aitken, a former Biden staffer, was there to meet him. She is also Kaufman’s former neighbor and recalled his low-key reaction years ago when he busted her as a kid soaping his windows on “Mischief Night.”

” ‘Margaret, Thanks for cleaning my windows off but it seems like you forgot a rag,’ ” she remembered him saying as he handed her one.

On matters of policy and politics, he’s been known to show a tougher edge.

“Ted might not come off as a strong personality, but he is,” said Rhett Ruggerio, Delaware’s Democratic national committeeman who worked closely with Kaufman during Beau Biden’s run for Delaware attorney general. “He’s tough as hell. If you’re not doing your job, he’s going to jump down your throat quickly.”

No shortage of ideas

Kaufman, who will bring to the job a master’s in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania, lights up when talking about policy.

Helping to pass a strong economic recovery bill, and ensuring Delaware gets its “fair share,” will be his primary focus the first few months, he said. He supports middle-class tax cuts to boost spending and funding ready-to-go infrastructure projects. He’s in favor of green jobs and green technology that can be sold overseas.

“The main thing I’m interested in is getting money for jobs,” he said. “Getting people to stay in their houses. Getting the economy moving.”

He expects federal agencies to drive infrastructure funding, as opposed to congressional earmarks, so he plans to lobby those entities for Delaware.

“That’s something I know a lot about — done it for a long time — how to work the agencies to get what you can for Delaware,” he said.

Further down the road, he said he’d like to see what he could do to tackle campaign finance reform and the size and structure of the federal budget.

Kaufman said he expects to agree with the vast majority of President-elect Barack Obama’s proposals. But Obama has pushed some initiatives that could give some officials in Delaware pause. He sponsored a bill promoting a shareholder vote on executive compensation, which would override corporate-friendly law in Delaware. He has also critiqued the state’s “pretty loose laws” for credit cards during a debate.

“Are there things I’m going to disagree with the Obama-Biden administration? You can go to the bank on it,” he said, without addressing any specific proposal. “When those happen, Senator Biden and I are both very competitive people. So I’m sure I’ll want as badly as possible to be successful on the ones that we don’t agree on …

“From a competitive standpoint, I’m sure that’s going to make this more interesting,” he said.

Balancing a ‘three-legged stool’

Kaufman teaches a course on Congress at Duke University School of Law and has thought a lot about decision-making in government. He has lectured on John F. Kennedy Jr.’s “Profiles In Courage,” which discusses the competing pressures a lawmaker faces.

Figuring out his own approach — he describes it as a “three-legged stool,” factoring in constituents’ needs, his own principles and Biden’s views — came easily to him. He said no one factor should be determinative.

Gitenstein can’t imagine Biden calling Kaufman to complain.

“I think he respects Ted too much,” he said. “He’s going to be an independent U.S. senator and, in some respects, more independent than most U.S. senators because he’s not running for re-election.”

Kaufman is planning on only a brief stint in Washington. He considers the fact that he’ll be there just two years until a 2010 special election one of his biggest advantages. At the end of those years, he said, his greatest concern will be whether he gave his best effort — not re-election or the number of bills with his name on them, he said.

“To be able to go down and to vote just totally on what you think is right is a gift that I’m not going to mess up,” he said.

He had planned on spending time this January and February in Florida until he got the call last month from Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, whom he has known for decades. The day she offered him the appointment was the first time they discussed the Senate seat, he said.

He expects his start date will be a week before the Jan. 20 inauguration. In the meantime, he’s been talking with party officials, business people, labor and elected officials to get their input.

Kaufman is aiming for as much of a turnkey transition as possible.

He has asked to be on Biden’s soon-to-be former committees — Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary. He’ll be pressing for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, a Biden proposal targeting violence against women globally. He’ll also push for funding more cops on the street, another Biden initiative but one that he cares about deeply.

He expects to retain the “vast majority” of Biden’s Senate staff, hoping to avoid interruptions in constituent services. Though he’s been gone from Biden’s office for 13 years, there are still a handful of people working there that he hired.

A new dynamic

Biden and Kaufman’s new roles are likely to add different dimensions to their long-standing relationship.

Biden has said through a spokeswoman that he won’t continue Vice President Dick Cheney’s practice of attending party caucus meetings. Kaufman said he, too, will respect the separation of the branches, and he can envision information he simply wouldn’t share with Biden. An example would be if he’s working with another senator who decides to not support the administration and he needs to honor that senator’s confidence.

But Kaufman expects to continue talking with Biden frequently, just as he has for more than three decades. They’re at least likely to be in the same places at the same time. He anticipates Biden will continue to spend a lot of time in Delaware.

Having a vice president who cares about the state is “like having another member on our congressional delegation,” he said.

What will that mean, exactly?

“We’ll see as we go,” he said. “I’ve never been friends with the vice president before. This will evolve, but I think it’s good.”

Additional Facts

AGE: 69

FAMILY: Wife, Lynne, a retired accountant for the Delaware State Arts Council; three daughters; seven grandchildren

HOMETOWN: Born in Philadelphia, lives in Greenville

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Duke University and a master’s in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania

EXPERIENCE: A member of Sen. Joe Biden’s staff from 1973-1994, including 19 years as chief of staff; senior lecturing fellow at Duke University School of Law and a visiting lecturer of policy studies at Duke’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. Member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is responsible for government-sponsored international broadcasting, including the Voice of America. Member of the board of directors of Children and Families First and the board of Christiana Care.