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Choosing Kennedy’s successor

The state needs to name a replacement — and soon
By EDITORIAL  |  September 2, 2009


Massachusetts should have a temporary US senator until voters elect a replacement to serve out the remaining three years of Ted Kennedy’s term.

There are impending votes on health-care reform, which Kennedy called the cause of his life. Other important votes will come up over the next several months, as well, possibly including climate-change legislation. And who knows what else may arise, from nomination confirmations to further action on the groaning economy.

Without a second senator from the Bay State, Democrats will fall one short of the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster on the floor. Is that a political calculation? Of course. Does that mean we should leave the seat vacant? No.

True, back in 2004 state Democrats rejected the idea of having the governor appoint a Senate replacement, when they changed the law to let voters fill a vacancy with a special election. But Republicans who were right then in their support of such a measure, and are criticizing it now, have no argument against it — except their own political interests.

We are glad that Massachusetts legislators have scheduled a hearing for September 9 to decide whether Governor Deval Patrick should be allowed to name a temporary replacement, as Kennedy expressly requested shortly before his death. That action suggests a necessarily rapid pace.

After all, sometimes we really do learn about a statute’s deficiencies by seeing it in action. That is the case now.

Without a temporary Senate appointment, the vaunted Kennedy staff cannot continue its constituent-service work.

After Kennedy died, his Senate staff was told to shut down operations in 60 days. But the directive also precluded them from doing any work other than dismantling itself. Since the Senate seat is officially vacant, the staff has no authority to do its normal work.

The scope and importance of that work was testified to repeatedly in the days following Kennedy’s death. Kennedy’s office helped Massachusetts residents — tens of thousands of them — with everything from Byzantine immigration bureaucracy to public-housing problems.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Massachusetts citizens have case files in Kennedy’s office awaiting action. The staff is currently unable to assist them.

By the time a new senator is elected on January 19, the Kennedy operation will have long been broken up and shut down; its much-desired staffers will have been hired away.

A temporary appointment would allow Kennedy’s staff to resume its work, and to remain in place to ensure a smooth transition when the elected senator arrives in January.

The importance of the operational part of the Senate duties suggests an excellent temporary appointment: Paul Kirk, chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s board of trustees.

Those who don’t know Kirk may have seen him emcee the “Irish wake” memorial at the JFK Library last Friday. Kirk is one of Kennedy’s oldest and most trusted advisors; he served as an aide to the senator in the 1960s and ’70s, and as his presidential campaign manager in 1980. Kirk would be able to step in immediately to lead Kennedy’s staff, who knows him well. He can be counted on, as much as anyone, to vote in accordance with Kennedy’s wishes. Plus, at age 70, he is not looking to use an appointment to further a political career.

Other excellent names are also being bandied about, including former governor Michael Dukakis, former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger, former state Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston, former state senator Lois Pines, and Democratic activist and former Tufts Health Plan CEO James Roosevelt Jr. All are deserving of the honor, as are many others.

But we think Kirk makes the most sense to serve out the next few months in Kennedy’s honor. The state legislature should move quickly to give Patrick the power to make it happen.

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , Deval Patrick, Michael Dukakis, Beacon Hill,  More more >
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