Massachusetts law makes swift Kennedy succession unlikely

A special election, in no sooner than 145 days, is required under a 2004 law that Kennedy supported then but sought to have reversed in his final days. Obama loses a powerful ally at a critical time.

August 27, 2009|Tina Susman and James Oliphant

BOSTON AND WASHINGTON — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy didn't live to see his last public wish granted.

Last week, during what turned out to be his final days, Kennedy sent a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Democratic leaders of the state Legislature, asking that the state law for choosing a successor be amended.

Kennedy hoped to have Patrick granted the power to choose an interim senator until a special election could be held.

Currently, the only process for replacing a senator in Massachusetts is through a special election, which must take place between 145 and 160 days from Wednesday.

But with healthcare reform pending in the Senate and Kennedy's death leaving Democrats missing a crucial vote, waiting months to fill his seat is a grim proposition.

Whether or not the law is amended -- a move opposed by Republicans -- there was a familiar name being mentioned Wednesday among possible contenders for the seat: Kennedy.

Both the late senator's widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, and his nephew, Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, are possible appointees or electoral candidates whose names alone could catapult them to the head of the pack, said Francis Talty, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Joseph Kennedy, 56, served in Congress from 1987 to 1999 before leaving public office to head Citizens Energy Corp., a nonprofit organization he founded.

"He left Congress voluntarily and wasn't voted out," said Talty, noting the ex-congressman's advantages beyond name recognition.

One state official, who asked not to be identified, said that either Joseph or Victoria Kennedy, a 55-year-old attorney who has been active in gun control issues, "would not only be great candidates, but great senators," and would appeal to an electorate that has had a Kennedy in the Senate for 54 of the last 56 years.

Outside of the Kennedy clan, other possible candidates include former U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan, who is chancellor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell; state Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley; and U.S. Reps. Michael E. Capuano, Edward J. Markey and Stephen F. Lynch, all Democrats.

Gov. Patrick has yet to decide whether he will ask lawmakers to amend the succession law to give him power to name an interim senator.

Kennedy wrote in his letter that he believed it was "vital for this commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election."

Bradley H. Jones Jr., the state House minority leader, said Wednesday that with Kennedy's death, the law of succession had been put into play and it was too late to amend it, despite the late senator's wishes.

Kennedy himself supported the last change in the law, in 2004, which eliminated the power of the governor to appoint an interim successor. That was done because of fears that then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, might appoint a member of his party to replace Sen. John F. Kerry if Kerry had defeated President George W. Bush in the 2004 election.

Michael Walsh, a former state legislator, said there was a sense that most Democrats were not inclined to push for the change, cognizant of the potential complaints of hypocrisy it would raise from Republicans.

"The question is whether the outpouring of feeling for the senator now may change that," he said.


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