It's a safe bet that few U.S. senators would headline a newsletter "Engineering Update." But Delaware's Ted Kaufman, who did, is not your typical senator. He champions the federal workforce - hardly a popular cause among politicians. He's both a freshman and a lame duck in a chamber where seniority and electability spell power. Yet he also has a line into the White House and the insight of a longtime congressional insider. Free of political ambition, he's spared the chore of campaign fundraising. Finally, he's the only senator with both an M.B.A. and experience working as an engineer. And with just a year left in office, Kaufman sounds like a man in a hurry to help redirect national policy - on education, finance, energy, and, not incidentally, training engineers. "I know I'm going to make a difference," he tells Prism.
Kaufman's becoming a senator surprised many, including him. A trusted aide to Joseph R. Biden from 1972 to 1995, most of that time as chief of staff, he rejoined his former boss as a campaign adviser after Biden became Barack Obama's running mate. After the election, Kaufman was looking forward to playing tennis in Florida, where he had just rented a condo. Instead, he was tapped as Biden's successor. Spurning other choices, then Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a fellow Democrat, said she appointed Kaufman because, as a Washington veteran, he could assume his new duties "without any learning curve at all." A second purpose soon emerged: that of clearing a path for Biden's son, Beau, the state's attorney general, to run for the Senate seat after completing National Guard service in Iraq.
Kaufman has declared he won't seek election in his own right in 2010, whether the younger Biden runs or not. But once in the exclusive Senate club, he vowed not to be a mere placeholder. Indeed, having already won respect from senior members of both parties, he brought "qualifications as a newcomer [that] are almost unique," says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.
Cerebral, lean, and craggy, Kaufman is not charismatic in a conventional sense. He's a practiced lecturer, having taught a course on Congress at Duke's law school for years. But he reads a prepared speech in workmanlike fashion, half-glasses perched low on his nose. At times, he speaks in a rapid-fire mumble, as though he's too impatient to form complete words. When a topic engages him, however, Kaufman projects a compelling intensity.
One such topic is the danger to U.S. competitiveness posed by America's failure to produce enough engineers and scientists. By not emphasizing the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the country is missing an opportunity, Kaufman argues: "Young people today, kids in middle school and high school, want to make a difference. The problem is, they don't view engineering and science as the way to make a difference."
Meeting with a group of engineering deans last fall, Kaufman, 70, voiced concern about the kinds of jobs that will remain for his grandchildren's generation. He admitted that he hadn't spent much time thinking about the engineering pipeline until he found himself in the position of being the Senate's only engineer. He cited a prediction by Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr that the green economy will have triple the impact of the Internet. Then he mused about China's potential to outpace the United States: Once eyed as a market for Western clean-energy technology, China is surging ahead to develop and export its own. He pressed the deans to suggest what more he should be doing to help prevent an eventual U.S. decline.
Eager for Congress to approve energy and climate legislation, Kaufman believes engineers must be at the heart of a green-jobs recovery: "When you talk about solar or windmills or biomedical or geothermal or any of those things, it means more engineers." Yet the challenge can't be met just by pouring money into higher education and the National Science Foundation. The choke point can be found in secondary school, he points out: "If you don't take calculus in high school, you can't go to college and be an engineer or a scientist."
Driven by such concerns, Kaufman is the prime Senate sponsor of legislation requiring coordination of STEM education activities and sharing of best practices across all federal agencies. It would establish a committee under the National Science and Technology Council, which the president chairs, to prepare a five-year plan and produce annual progress reports. A nearly identical bill, introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), has already passed the full House. With a minimal $2 million estimated cost and certain backing from Obama, who tried and failed to pass a similar measure while a senator, the bill appears likely to become law sometime in 2010, possibly attached to another piece of legislation.
The paucity of women and minorities in the STEM fields also worries Kaufman. He helped insert $400,000 - "small, but a beginning," he says - into a 2010 spending bill, signed by Obama, for research and extension grants aimed at boosting participation by women and under-represented minorities in STEM fields. Land grant colleges serving rural areas are eligible to apply. "How can you have the best and brightest, if you don't have women and minorities?" he asks.
Kaufman sees a chance to recapture a period, before Wall Street lured graduates hoping to strike it rich, when engineering beckoned the brightest. "I was there when we went through the Sputnik thing," he told a symposium on K-12 engineering education last September. "All of a sudden, the best students in all the schools wanted to be engineers."
For his part, Kaufman "drifted into" the field. He was raised in Philadelphia, where his father, trained as an artist, was a social worker and his mother was a teacher. "I didn't know about engineering from a bag of donuts," he says. But at the city's Central High School, from which he graduated in the mid-Fifties, "if you were really smart," you "went into STEM." He did.
With a degree in mechanical engineering from Duke University (his M.B.A. is from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School), Kaufman joined the DuPont Co., where he held technical, finance, and marketing positions. In 1972, he took a leave of absence from the Delaware-headquartered company to join Biden's first Senate campaign. He never returned, instead accompanying Biden to Capitol Hill. Biden calls him "the single most important person in my career."
Kaufman left Capitol Hill in 1995 to set up a political consulting business in Wilmington, Del., but maintained a connection to Washington when then President Bill Clinton named him to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a bipartisan panel that supervises all U.S. international, nonmilitary broadcasting. He was reappointed by President George W. Bush.
Professionally, Kaufman says, he's guided more by his head than his gut, drawing on concepts and analytic tools from engineering and business. "I do find that a lot of things that were kind of inculcated in me in engineering have really helped me through my life in terms of being able to approach problem-solving and decision-making," he notes. "I think it's right side of the brain, left side of the brain. It's art versus science."
That engineer's mind sets him apart in an arena dominated by career politicians. "This guy is driven by logic," Biden tells Prism. "He and I will get in a hollerin' match, but . . . every single problem we're trying to solve, he goes, 'What are the facts? What is the specific problem we're trying to solve?' Then he goes, 'Okay, that's the problem.' Then, 'Here's the logical solution.'" Kaufman's approach, says his longtime boss, is that "there is no problem we can't solve if we sit down long enough and argue it out."
Kaufman's advocacy on behalf of engineering and STEM education generally has cheered engineering educators. "To find someone who actually understands the language was just unbelievable for us," says Darryll J. Pines, dean of the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering.
But the engineer-senator is not just the engineers' senator. Kaufman has led a relentless, and already successful, push to crack down on Wild West trading behavior in financial markets. At the urging of Kaufman and others, the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed new rules to curb short-selling and is considering additional demands for more sweeping changes in market structure, including arcane practices like flash trading and dark pools.
Kaufman has traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq to gauge the situation first-hand, and gained congressional backing for a measure to align the work of U.S. diplomats with the military's counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. His private advice is welcomed by Biden, to whom Kaufman is "the guy I most rely on and - to tell you the truth - I still do."
In addition, Kaufman launched a crusade on the Senate floor to promote government service, designed to counter political attacks on federal bureaucrats and highlight the work of individual public employees.
Kaufman says he's been bothered for years by the denigration of federal employees. "So what I decided to do when I was here - it just kind of came to me - was, every week, I pick out a different federal employee. And they aren't only the ones that won the Nobel Prize - I've got two Nobel laureates on there - it's people who came to work every day, made a difference, and did a job well."
Exerting the same kind of effort himself takes a toll. "This is intense. This is a load," Kaufman tells Prism with a laugh. "You know, when I come home at night, I'm really tired." It is no fun growing old, he reflects, "but you learn some things that are really important." One is that "you don't have to win. You just have to try, and if you can look inside yourself and say you tried as hard as you can, that's enough."
Paul West covers national politics as the Baltimore Sun's Washington correspondent.