WASHINGTON — Paul G. Kirk Jr., a longtime friend and advisor to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), was named Thursday to fill the senator's seat until a special election can be held in January.
His appointment by Massachusetts' Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick means another crucial Democratic vote in the Senate at a time when President Obama is pushing for a sweeping overhaul of the health insurance system. Republicans have decried the interim appointment as a Democratic effort to force a healthcare bill through Congress.
Kirk will be sworn in today.
In January, Massachusetts voters will elect a successor to Kennedy, who served for nearly 47 years and succumbed to brain cancer last month. In the meantime, observers said, Kirk can be expected to promote the Kennedy agenda. Kirk served as a Senate aide to Kennedy for nearly a decade and was an informal advisor for many more years.
"He was there fighting for healthcare when Kennedy was there fighting for it," said Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked on the presidential campaigns of Kennedy and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "He won't vote for healthcare because he is a proxy but because he cares about it."
Kirk, 71, a Harvard-educated attorney and business consultant whose father was an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, is a senior fixture in the Democratic Party. He was chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1985 to 1989, during the failed presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. He was the party's treasurer before that.
He campaigned for the late Robert F. Kennedy during the Democratic presidential primary campaign in 1968, and was persuaded by Ted Kennedy to remain in public service.
"This is a caretaker appointment, a gentle transition, a kind of stewardship," Kerry said Thursday at the announcement of the appointment at the state Capitol in Boston. "And Paul Kirk will be a superb steward of this seat."
Kirk also is executor of Kennedy's will.
Days before he died, Kennedy had called on the governor and state legislative leaders to appoint a successor swiftly. Massachusetts law calls for the replacement to be named by special election, but state lawmakers approved legislation allowing the governor to name an interim senator.
The election for someone to serve the remainder of Kennedy's term, which lasts through 2012, will be held Jan. 19. Kirk has declared that he will not be a candidate.
Kirk "was a close and loyal advisor and confidant of Sen. Kennedy," Patrick said. "In the next few weeks he will carry on the work of Sen. Kennedy . . . mindful of his values."
The White House welcomed Kirk to the Senate, where it takes 60 votes to block a filibuster. "I am pleased that Massachusetts will have its full representation in the United States Senate in the coming months, as important issues such as healthcare, financial reform and energy will be debated," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.
Republicans complained that when Kerry was running for president and the possibility arose that his Senate seat would become vacant, Democrats in Massachusetts stripped the state's Republican governor of the power to name an interim senator.
"What the . . . totally Democratic-controlled Massachusetts state government should have done is just be honest about it," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "They should have written a law this way: If there's a Republican governor, there's no appointment. And if there's a Democratic governor, there is an appointment."
Kirk is chairman and chief executive of Kirk & Associates, a consulting firm, and is affiliated with the Boston-based law firm of Sullivan & Worcester, where he was a partner from 1977 to 1990. He serves on the board of Hartford Financial Services Group and Rayonier, and served on the board of ITT Corp. from 1989 to 1997.
Kirk also is co-founder and co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsors the series of presidential and vice presidential faceoffs every four years. He is chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and is raising money for an institute to be named for Sen. Kennedy.
Asked about Kirk's readiness to serve a few tough months in the Senate, Shrum said: "He was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which is one of the toughest jobs in politics.
"He has a very droll sense of humor, but you have to know him very well before you see it," Shrum said. "He, like Sen. Kennedy, has a high regard for people who will tell him what they think and argue their case."