Don’t count Ted Kennedy out just yet. Several sources insist to the Phoenix that the liberal lion will be back in the Senate chamber before you know it; they say his staff has been told that he’s not going anywhere for a good long while. One source who has regular contact with Kennedy (caveat: a great many people consider themselves in that circle) says that this past week’s discovery of a brain tumor will not deter him from his plan to serve out his term — or even to run for re-election in 2012.
Maybe so, but the prognosis immediately set minds thinking about the inevitable departure — be it near-term or distant — of Kennedy from the US Senate, where he has served since 1962.
Although some are adamant that Kennedy will never leave voluntarily — and that he’s a long way from dying — others are more skeptical about the likelihood that the 76-year-old senator can continue to serve for long while undergoing treatment for cancer.
Some suspect he will soon have to retire, regardless of his determination to remain. One rumor even prior to this past week had him going to work for a new Democratic president next year — possibly choosing to finish out his career as ambassador to Great Britain, working with his good friend Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in the job that his father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., once held.
All of this is speculation — but regardless of what happens in the months or years ahead, people are thinking seriously about what comes after Kennedy leaves the Senate.
Electing a successor will take on enormous importance — and not just for Massachusetts, but for the country — because of the power that the Bay State has been accustomed to having in Washington. The void left will be immense. “You can’t underestimate his presence in the Senate,” says Thomas Quinn, who worked on Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign and is now a lobbyist with Venable in Washington. “He’s an overwhelming presence.”
Kennedy has so much influence in so many areas, his office serves as a kind of “one-stop shop” for lobbyists, says Scott Ferson, former press secretary for Kennedy and now president of the Boston-based political-consulting firm Liberty Square Group. Lobbyists can go to Kennedy’s office to plead their clients’ cases, whether they are looking for military contracts, education bills, or Justice Department grants. (Indeed, access to Kennedy is so valuable, people who are friends with, or have worked for, Kennedy have become among the most sought-after lobbyists in the country: Nick Littlefield, John Cahill, Gerald Cassidy, Jonathan Orloff, Tony Podesta, and Quinn, just to name a few.)
And his power is, after all these years, only going upward. “His access to a new Obama White House would be spectacular,” says Quinn.
Kennedy’s unique presence will be especially needed if Barack Obama becomes president and hopes to fulfill his promise of forging bipartisan consensus on a range of policy issues. That concern was quickly noted in the Washington-insider paper The Hill, which speculated about who could possibly fill Kennedy’s role as cross-party liaison. “Somebody’s got to manage that legislation,” says Quinn, adding that nobody else on Capitol Hill — and few in history — have the skill, experience, and relationships required.
An election to succeed him would take place in this enormous shadow. It would also happen in a hurry. If he were to leave before the end of his term in 2012, there would be as little as three months before a special-election primary. That means potential candidates can’t afford to wait for an announcement to start preparing — and certainly, political observers are not waiting to start speculating and spreading rumors.
A special election
The general agreement among that punditry is that, assuming a special election would be held with just a few months’ preparation before the primary, a Democrat would need to begin with strong name recognition and funding in order to emerge from a crowded field.
That field would likely be quite different than it appeared four years ago, when the possibility of John Kerry becoming president led Senate-covetous pols to size up their chances. At that time, it seemed like half the congressional delegation would run.
Today, that’s no longer the case. Democratic gains in 2006 put the party in control of the US House of Representatives, and this year’s elections are expected to solidify that advantage for years to come.
Massachusetts reps suddenly find themselves sitting pretty where they are. Barney Frank chairs the banking committee, for example. Jim McGovern, by a combination of connections and fortune, finds himself vice- chair of the powerful Rules Committee — waiting to inherit the chairmanship from 78-year-old Louise Slaughter.