Filling Ted Kennedy's empty seat

Who's a possibility to become an interim senator, and who might run for the job?

Published August 28, 2009 11:25PM (EDT)

If this were an ordinary moment, Massachusetts could just wait around for a new senator the regular way. Currently, the law calls for a special election in the event of a vacancy. The legislature had changed the rule earlier this decade, removing then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s power to appoint a replacement (and overriding his veto), in anticipation of the possibility that Sen. John Kerry would be elected president. But now the state’s other Senate seat -- the one that had been held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy -- is open instead, and there’s a Democrat, Gov. Deval Patrick, in the State House. Worse, the Bay State lost its senior senator at the peak of the legislative battle that will likely define President Obama’s first term.

It’s been said a number of times that Kennedy’s absence has been felt throughout the healthcare fight. This is probably true, but with the vote counts looking the way they do, the Democrats need someone -- almost anyone -- in that seat almost as badly as they wish they still had Kennedy. Before he died, Kennedy asked the legislature to change the law back to its pre-2004 form, to allow Gov. Patrick to appoint his replacement. The governor and legislative leaders have blessed the idea, so it seems likely to happen, though state Republicans are already talking about a court challenge.

There hasn’t been an open Senate seat in the Democrat-packed state since 1984, so a small mob of ambitious office-holders is jockeying for position. If he gets to make an appointment, Patrick, already struggling, won’t want to bring more trouble on his head by choosing among the many would-be career senators. That means that there are probably two separate sets of contenders for the seat. There are the ones who might be appointed, and the ones who might run for the job come election time. Expect Patrick to try to make sure that no one from group two sneaks into group one.

Possible interim appointees

  • Michael Dukakis: The former governor seems like the perfect caretaker, if he wants the job. Seventy-five years old and already having come close to the White House, he’s probably not going to stick around in the Senate if appointed, but he’d be a respected and prominent voice in the legislative battles to come.
  • Vicki Kennedy: The late senator’s wife would be an obvious pick, were she interested. She’d fight loyally for her husband’s legacy project, healthcare reform, but clearly doesn’t want the job in the long term. In fact, she probably isn't in for the short term either, having indicated that she doesn’t want the appointment.
  • Paul Kirk: A former head of the Democratic National Committee, Kirk has a profile that makes a lot of sense for an interim pick. He was close to the Kennedys -- in fact, he’s the chairman of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
  • Robert Reich: The Washington Post has dropped the name of the former labor secretary (and frequent Salon contributor). Reich ran a strong, though unsuccessful, insurgent campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002. He’s an expert on the issues in front of the Senate now, but has moved from his professorship at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., to the University of California in Berkeley, Calif. Is he eligible, let alone interested?
  • Shannon O’Brien: The woman who beat Reich in that Democratic primary, a former state treasurer, went on to lose to Romney in the general election. If she pledged not to run for the job, appointing her probably wouldn’t offend anyone.
  • Scott Harshbarger: A former state attorney general and ex-president of the group Common Cause, Harshbarger is another former state officeholder who lost a gubernatorial general election. Appointing him would probably be similar to appointing O’Brien, his successor as a defeated gubernatorial nominee.

Possible candidates for a full term

  • Martha Coakley: The current state attorney general has made her desire for the job pretty clear. She’s already won a statewide landslide, and she’s the only woman thinking about running for the seat.
  • Joe Kennedy: The ex-congressman has a couple obvious advantages: his last name, and his face. (Look here -- you’ll see what I mean.) As an actual former elected official, he has a real claim to the seat. Besides, it’s been in his family’s hands nearly uninterrupted for decades. He’s suffered some minor controversies, but nothing fatal, and could very well ride the warm glow left by his beloved late uncle.

If this were 2004 and John Kerry had just been elected president, we’d be talking about Representatives Ed Markey, Marty Meehan and Barney Frank as the three leading candidates. All three had been waiting for the opening for years, and stockpiling cash. They still have their war chests, and any could still run. But since 2004, Markey and Frank have moved up to powerful positions in the House majority, and Meehan has taken a job as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. (Frank has said he won't run.) So, for the moment, we’ll count the three of them out. That leaves just about everyone else in the state’s congressional delegation.

  • Rep. Mike Capuano: This former Somerville mayor may come off like a Tip O’Neill style local ward-heeling pol, but he’s also the congressman for the liberal bastion of Cambridge. That could be a powerful combination in a Democratic primary.
  • Rep. Stephen Lynch: This South Boston congressman is a throwback to an older style of Democrat. He’s a former steelworker, strongly pro-labor, and strongly against abortion. A constituency exists for that kind of politics in Massachusetts, but it’s hard to imagine it’s a majority in a Democratic primary. Lynch, who looks like he wants to run, might win if more orthodox progressives split the vote badly.
  • Rep. Bill Delahunt: Representing Ted Kennedy’s own beloved Cape Cod, Delahunt is a reliable liberal, and might be interested in running. It’s hard to see, however, what distinguishes him from the pack.
  • Reps. Richard Neal and John Tierney: These two probably won’t run. If they do, though, what goes for Delahunt goes doubly for them.

You may have noticed that Republicans haven’t made the list. It’s pretty difficult to imagine this most Democratic of states reacting to the death of a beloved, iconic Democrat by voting to replace him with a GOP vote. Compounding the state’s basic hostility to their party in federal elections is the far more attractive prospect for Republicans of challenging the weakened Gov. Patrick in 2010. Still, a few candidates have been mentioned.

  • Mitt Romney: The former governor ended his one term something less than adored, so it’s not at all clear that he could win. And even if he did, it probably wouldn't be a boon to his budding 2012 presidential campaign. No wonder he’s said no.
  • Kerry Healey: The lieutenant governor under Mitt Romney and failed gubernatorial nominee against Deval Patrick might want to get back into government work. According to the Boston Globe, she's "talking to family and thinking about all of the different things involved, what it would take to run.”
  • Michael Sullivan: A former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts and chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, it’s not clear why Sullivan would want to tarnish an otherwise impressive career by losing an election to, say, Michael Capuano.
  • Jeff Beatty: This businessman has sought office in Massachusetts before -- and lost badly. A couple of times.

--Gabriel Winant

By Salon Staff

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