Martha Coakley held an event yesterday where the only story should have been the very vocal support she is receiving from members of the Kennedy family. However, due to a really poor decision by interim US Senator Paul Kirk and the Coakley campaign, another (and more damaging) story came out of the event. When the legislature reversed state law to allow Governor Patrick to appoint a temporary successor to the late Senator Kennedy, one of the agreements was that that person, whomever it should turn out to be, would stay neutral in the special election – specifically the replacement was blocked from “endorsing any candidate in the special election.” It is not legally binding, but Kirk’s decision shows an utter disregard for the agreement that made his service possible and helps further the impression that we can not trust our elected representatives. While Mr. Kirk is right that “as a former Democratic chairman, it’s probably no surprise what side I’d be on” leaving it at that misses the real point. It is really unfortunate that Kirk “did not think twice” before agreeing to violate the resolution passed by our state government. The fact that this endorsement, by his own admission, won’t make a huge difference in the race makes the story even worse and is a black mark on the Coakley team. Why risk the negative publicity and further sow the seeds of mistrust, that are already such a part of politics, by making a move that won’t have much impact? How
The larger point, of course, is what this does to Martha Coakley and her campaign. There is already concern amongst the electorate that we are going to be electing someone, essentially for life, who we do not really know. Between her refusal to debate, one on one, her only “real” opponent (sorry Joe Kennedy), her incredible lack of campaign events and the scarcity of her ads, we are left to guess about who we will likely be electing to represent us. And accepting the endorsement of someone who should not be endorsing doesn’t say good things about her willingness to honor agreements or her ability to recognize and stand up for what is right (even if it might put her at odds with powerful people). Maybe that’s harsh. But, with little other evidence to go on, voters are forced to draw conclusions from what we can see. And, in this case, I don’t like what I’m seeing.
So, I have been a bit behind the 8-ball on talking about the interim senator debate we’ve been having up here in Massachusetts. To make a long story short, in 2004 a Democrat-controlled legislature passed a law which effectively removed the Governor’s right to appoint an interim senator, should there be a vacancy. The change was made to prevent then-Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from getting to choose a new senator if John Kerry had been elected President. Of course, with Kerry’s loss, it didn’t end up making a difference, but the law stayed on the books. Until now. With Senator Kennedy’s passing, Massachusetts did have a vacancy and one that came at a critical time. With a Democrat in office this time, the legislature reversed course and changed the law allowing the Governor to appoint someone.
It is a tough issue that I have been struggling with for a while. I hate the idea of making decisions based on political calculations, but I recognize the reality that it does happen. I also recognize that one of the perks of being the party in power is that you can change rules (think redistricting) to suit your needs. Leaves a sour taste in my mouth, but I understand why it happens. That fact, coupled with the realization that the next few months are going to be critical in a number of areas (health care, Afghanistan, climate change) and that I disagree with what was done in 2004, ultimately caused me to support this law change. However, it is my fervent hope that, before the next vacancy comes along, we will come up with a standard for how to handle this sort-of situation.
I’m sure it will shock you to know that I have a proposal. It is nothing too revolutionary, and something that is done in other states. Basically what I would like to see is the following steps be taken when there is a vacancy.
1. Secretary of State sets a primary and election date as soon as is legal and feasible.
2. Party of departing official prepares a list of 5 acceptable candidates (no more, no less). These candidates can be from either party, but must be eligible to serve and must agree, in writing, to not run in the special election
3. Governor takes that list and, within a reasonable period of time (to allow for vetting), chooses one person from that list to appoint.
4. That person is sworn into office by the Vice-President as soon as schedules allow.
Seems simple and clear. It would prevent one person from having all the power, ensure that the seat stays in the same party (which is only fair) and removes any chance (assuming people are true to their word) that the benefits of incumbency would result in “senator for life” being appointed. Fell free to call it the Weisman Bill if you want. 🙂
Before I go, I also wanted to run down the list of possible appointments and give you my prediction on who the Governor will appoint. Of course, this prediction would be a LOT more dramatic or impressive if I had made it before the Boston Globe, NPR and New York Times all reported who the likely choice is, but we can look past that can’t we?
The candidates, in order of pick likelihood.
Paul Kirk: A former chair of the DNC and aide to the late Senator, he is the choice of the Kennedy family (Vicki, Patrick and Ted, Jr. have all lobbied Governor Patrick for him). His selection would demonstrate the continued influence of the Kennedy family and will likely be cheered by Kennedy loyalists, both in Mass. and in DC. While not well-known locally, he is a player in DC and will very comfortable in the Senate chamber. It should give us pause that he is on the board of Hartford Financial, but he will know that he owes his appointment to the Kennedy family and will likely vote as the Senator would have. In short, he is more likely to do what Kennedy wants, even it goes against what he wants.
Michael Dukakis: The early-front runner, Dukakis is still extremely popular in Massachusetts among liberals and would be a very strong voice for the issues Senator Kennedy cared about. He is extremely familiar with many of those issues, so the learning curve would be virtually non-existant. In addition, his fame in the state, would allow him to get right to work and not have to worry about introducing himself to the citizens.
Charles Ogletree: A Professor at Harvard Law School (who taught the Obamas), Ogletree founded the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. An extremely dynamic figure (I was hoping he’d run for the seat) Ogletree would certainly have the ear of the President and would likely be able to exert influence and make a difference right away. His familiarity with the issues of the day are good, though both Kirk and Dukakis have much more experience with the health care issue. Despite that, his brilliance and varied experiences wouldn’t make it difficult for him to get up to speed quickly and wade right into the debate.
Evelyn Murphy: A former Lt. Gov. of the Commonwealth (under Dukakis), she was the first woman to hold state-wide elected office. She was also the Secretary of Environmental Affairs and has done work on the equal pay issue – both important roles, but not issues that are at the forefront of debate in Washington right now. In addition, as the least well-known (both here and in DC) of the candidates, her ability to make a difference would be limited and, with only a few months to serve, might not be able to be much more than a seat-holder.
Personally I would like to see Dukakis get the nod, since I think he would be a more passionate and effective voice for issues I care about. However, when all is said and done, it is extremely likely that Kirk will be the choice. Stay tuned…