The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy early Wednesday morning brings to a close the life and legendary career of one of Massachusetts's greatest political figures. It also hastens the issue of succession to the seat he has held since he was elected in 1962, a topic that has gripped the state's political class since Kennedy's brain tumor was discovered more than a year ago.
That interest is more than understandable. It's been a quarter-century since John Kerry won the state's last open US Senate seat in 1984. Coupled with our local fascination with all things Kennedy, it's no surprise that Kennedy's plan for Senate succession — suggested by him in a quickly leaked letter to state leaders Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo last week— has been the talk of the town.
If enacted, his plan would allow the governor to name a temporary replacement for a Senate vacancy, preferably one pledging to serve only for the five months until a special election for a longer-term replacement would be held.
In the strictest sense, the idea seems straightforward and uncontroversial. Current state law calls for a Senate vacancy to be filled by special election, but leaves the seat empty and the state underrepresented for five months. The change Kennedy recommended would provide a Bay State voice in the Senate for the interim, without affecting the special election. More poignantly, it would also ensure a 60th Democratic vote on the Senate floor, which is crucial for the passage of the health-care-reform legislation that was close to Kennedy's heart and supported by most of Beacon Hill.
And yet not everyone is on board. Some have voiced concern that Kennedy was trying to maneuver a hand-picked replacement into position — possibly even a family member. Others are concerned that Kennedy's proposal, even in light of his death, will be politically dangerous since it smacks — intentionally or not — of personal politics and interference.
Those latter concerns are certainly understandable.
For starters, politics was entirely behind the law being written as it now stands. Until 2004, the governor was empowered to choose a replacement to serve until the next federal election. But when Kerry was thought to be on his way to the White House, Beacon Hill Democrats yanked that power from Republican governor Mitt Romney.
Republicans at the time proposed the exact same temporary five-month appointment that Kennedy's plan calls for, to no avail. Those Republicans are now pounding Democrats for alleged hypocrisy should they adopt the change five years later. Opposition is therefore a pretty easy political calculation for the GOP — even though technically they are just as hypocritical for opposing it.
National Democrats eager to maintain their 60-vote supermajority would love to see the state adopt Kennedy's proposal. And at least according to initial polling, a slim majority of Bay Staters agree. But Beacon Hill Democrats who make the laws find themselves in a difficult position. They've been desperately trying to quell voter concerns that they run a rigged, patronage-laden, behind-closed-doors government. Changing the law for choosing a senator, for the second time in recent memory, and for obviously partisan political reasons, wouldn't exactly look like change and reform.