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.