Seeks law change for interim post
By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff | August 20, 2009
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in a poignant acknowledgment of his mortality at a critical time in the national health care debate, has privately asked the governor and legislative leaders to change the succession law to guarantee that Massachusetts will not lack a Senate vote when his seat becomes vacant.
In a personal, sometimes wistful letter sent Tuesday to Governor Deval L. Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Kennedy asks that Patrick be given authority to appoint someone to the seat temporarily before voters choose a new senator in a special election.
Although Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, does not specifically mention his illness or the health care debate raging in Washington, the implication of his letter is clear: He is trying to make sure that the leading cause in his life, better health coverage for all, advances in the event of his death.
In his letter, which was obtained by the Globe, Kennedy said that he backs the current succession law, enacted in 2004, which gives voters the power to fill a US Senate vacancy. But he said the state and country need two Massachusetts senators.
“I strongly support that law and the principle that the people should elect their senator,’’ Kennedy wrote. “I also believe it is 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.’’
Under the 2004 law, if Kennedy were to die or step down, voters would select his successor in a special election to be held within five months of the vacancy. But the law makes no provisions for Massachusetts to be represented in the Senate in the interim. In the meantime, President Obama’s plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system, the fate of which may hinge on one or two votes, could come before Congress.
“I am now writing to you about an issue that concerns me deeply, the continuity of representation for Massachusetts, should a vacancy occur,’’ Kennedy wrote.
To ensure that the special election is fair, the senator also urged that the governor obtain an “explicit personal commitment’’ from his appointee not to seek the office on a permanent basis.
Separately, a Kennedy family confidant, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the letter was private, said the senator’s wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, is not interested in being a temporary appointee or running in a special election.
“Her focus is her husband and her family,’’ the confidant said. “To her, there is only one Senator Kennedy.’’
DeLeo and Murray, in a joint statement to the Globe yesterday, did not address the substance of Kennedy’s request, saying: “We have great respect for the senator and what he continues to do for our Commonwealth and our nation. It is our hope that he will continue to be a voice for the people of Massachusetts as long as he is able.’’
Patrick said in a statement: “It’s typical of Ted Kennedy to be thinking ahead and about the people of Massachusetts, when the rest of us are thinking about him. Diane and I continue to pray for the restoration of the senator’s health and the comfort of his family.’’
Kennedy advisers were adamant yesterday that the timing of the letter did not reflect any imminent emergency in the health of the senator, who has been battling brain cancer since May 2008. Rather, it was sent this week after the Globe began making inquiries to key Beacon Hill officials over murmurings that some politicians were pushing for a change in the law.
Kennedy aides said the senator never liked the five-month vacancy created by the 2004 law, but his dislike took on new urgency because Senate Democrats could need every vote possible on health care legislation.
The family confidant stressed that even with his deteriorating health, Kennedy continues to speak with staff and Senate colleagues. If his vote were needed, there exists every possibility he would fly to Washington again to cast it, Kennedy allies said.
Still, Kennedy’s letter is a candid acknowledgment that his long Senate career might be coming to an end, a historic development for both Massachusetts and the nation. He is the last of three Kennedy brothers whose careers helped define postwar Democratic politics.
“For almost 47 years, I have had the privilege of representing the people of Massachusetts in the United States Senate,’’ Kennedy wrote in his letter.
Serving in the Senate, he wrote, “has been - and still is - the greatest honor of my public life.’’
Advisers, including Senator John F. Kerry, began discussions months ago about pushing for a change in the state law.
Kennedy’s letter was drafted in early July, when he was writing several other letters, including a private note to the pope that Obama hand-delivered. The letter to state officials was kept secret, not sent until this week.
Kerry said yesterday that Kennedy had been considering this issue since the early summer.
“It is something he talked to me about some time ago,’’ he said in an interview.
Kerry rejected any notion that the letter signaled an immediate end to Kennedy’s nearly half-century in office, insisting that his colleague has been active in shaping the health care legislation in recent weeks.
“I don’t think this signals anything,’’ Kerry said. “He has been fully engaged. . . . If [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid required 60 votes tomorrow, Ted Kennedy would be on a plane and be down in the Senate to vote.’’
Kerry added that he speaks with the senator regularly and visited him several weeks ago at Kennedy’s Hyannis Port home.
Kennedy’s request puts Massachusetts lawmakers in a delicate position. On one hand, his personal appeal would probably have some sway.
But resistance on Beacon Hill to tinkering with the 2004 law is strong, with Democratic lawmakers nervous about being accused of engineering a self-serving change to help their party.
Massachusetts governors used to have the power to fill Senate vacancies, as happens in many other states, until the Legislature made the change five years ago.
Democratic lawmakers, then as now in the majority, did not want to give Governor Mitt Romney the chance to fill Kerry’s seat with a Republican if Kerry won the presidency.
Patrick, meanwhile, has dismissed past suggestions that the state change the law back to give him the power to fill a Senate vacancy.
Those who would run for Kennedy’s seat could also pressure state lawmakers to resist changing the law, out of concern that toying with the special election could somehow damage their prospects.
In Washington, there are increasing concerns among Democrats and health care advocates over Kennedy’s absence from Capitol Hill. His voice has often been one of the loudest and most influential on health care.
The Democratic caucus’s 60-vote majority is already tenuous, with several moderate Democrats having expressed skepticism about the health care bill.
Kennedy’s having not attended the funeral of his sister, Eunice, last week heightened concerns that he would be unable to return to the Senate for a vote.
I think about the fact that we've really treated the Kennedys like an American version of a royal family, but it seems to be entirely appropriate when you think about how many of them have sacrificed so very much for our country over the last 40+ years.