Published September 24, 2009
BOSTON -- A day after Massachusetts lawmakers granted one of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's final wishes by changing the state's succession law, an interim replacement for the late senator's crucial U.S. Senate seat is expected to be named Thursday.
Gov. Deval Patrick is to announce the appointment of Kennedy's successor at a news conference at the Statehouse, and former aide and longtime Kennedy friend Paul G. Kirk Jr. has the backing of the late senator's sons.
Patrick declined to discuss potential appointees, but a top aide earlier confirmed that Kennedy's sons had lobbied for the appointment of Kirk, the former Democratic National Committee chairman.
The governor's appointee will serve until a special election is held Jan. 19, and will give President Barack Obama the critical 60th U.S. Senate vote he needs to pass a health care overhaul this year.
On Thursday, the Massachusetts Legislature approved a bill that allows the governor to name a successor to Kennedy, who died last month after a yearlong battle with brain cancer.
Patrick said Wednesday he plans to send a letter to the secretary of state to declare an emergency that would allow him to override a legislative vote that defeated his administration's effort to make the bill take effect immediately. Normally, legislation faces a 90-day waiting period.
"I recognize the gravity of this decision and I will make it very soon, and tell you just as soon as I do," the governor told reporters Wednesday night.
Edward Kennedy Jr. and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., had contacted Patrick and urged him to appoint Kirk to replace their father, a Kennedy family confidant said. A spokeswoman in Patrick Kennedy's congressional office declined to comment, while an aide to Edward Kennedy Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.
The 71-year-old Kirk, a Boston attorney, was close friends with the senator. He and his wife, Gail, live on Cape Cod, and he was among the few regular visitors allowed at Kennedy's Hyannis Port home before he succumbed to brain cancer Aug. 25.
Kirk knows the senator's staff intimately and would likely be assured of their loyalty given his relationship with Kennedy.
A senior statesman who has never served in political office, Kirk wouldn't pose a threat to the candidates competing in the special election. The Democratic field includes Attorney General Martha Coakley, vying to be the state's first female senator, and U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, the lone member of the state's congressional delegation in the race.
A Kennedy family confidant, who like the Patrick aide requested anonymity to speak about private conversations, refused to reveal whether the senator's widow, Vicki, had also endorsed Kirk. Vicki Kennedy has granted no interviews since her husband's death, but Patrick revealed recently that she had told him she did not want to be considered for the interim appointment.
On Wednesday, he added: "I have talked to Vicki Kennedy multiple times, before the senator's loss and since."
Democrats had revoked the governor's power to fill Senate vacancies in 2004, fearing then-Gov. Mitt Romney might appoint a fellow Republican if Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., won his campaign for the presidency. Instead, they created a five-month special election campaign and beat back GOP efforts both that year and in 2006 to bridge any such vacancy with a temporary senatorial appointment.
On Aug. 20, five days before he died, Kennedy sent Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo letters urging them to amend the succession law to allow an interim replacement. Obama is pushing a national health care overhaul that was Kennedy's life passion, and his death has deprived the Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Patrick later said the senator had made a "reasonable request," given the health care debate and upcoming Senate votes on climate change and economic recovery legislation.
While there are only 16 Republicans in the 160-member House and five in the 40-member Senate, Wednesday's votes were far less lopsided -- highlighting the political turmoil created by Kennedy's request. The House vote against the emergency preamble that would have made the bill take effect immediately was 95-59, when a two-thirds vote of both chambers was needed to approve it. And the votes on the final bill were an identical 95-59 in the House and 24-16 in the Senate.
According to the state constitution, the governor can bypass the two-thirds requirement merely by sending a letter to the secretary of state declaring "the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety or convenience requires that such law should take effect forthwith."
Patrick has argued the state stands to suffer without full Senate representation before the special election campaign, but some of his fellow Democrats have joined Republicans in accusing him of a power grab.
"This is not an emergency," said Rep. Paul Frost, R-Auburn. "So however the governor is going to write a letter to the secretary of state, saying the Legislature didn't agree it was an emergency, but I do, I can't wait to see it."
Four House Republicans, all attorneys, wrote Patrick a letter urging him to seek a ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court before signing the bill.
Kirk graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and served on Kennedy's staff between 1969 and 1977. He ran the Democratic National Committee in the run-up to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' unsuccessful run for president in 1988.
Kirk also co-founded the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored every presidential and vice presidential debate involving major candidates since 1988.
He now serves as chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. He was in the national spotlight last month when he hosted a memorial service the evening before Kennedy's funeral.
Kirk also is close to Caroline Kennedy, who serves as president of the library foundation honoring her late father. He stood on the stage with her and the late senator each year as they dispensed the library's annual "Profiles in Courage" awards.
Asked recently whether he would be interested in an interim appointment, Kirk told The Associated Press in an e-mail, "It would be much too presumptuous of me to even consider. Hope you will understand."
Dukakis is among those who is said to be under consideration. He, too, has declined to comment on the question.