By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Democracy and the Senate (II)

The notion that the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald represent ideologically opposite editorial positions is overblown. The Herald and its editorial-page editor, Rachelle Cohen, aren’t really all that conservative. And the Globe, whose editorial page recently transitioned from longtime editor Renée Loth to former Washington-bureau chief Peter Canellos, is just contrarian enough on issues like charter schools to keep liberals agitated.

An exception is today. The Globe offers its full-throated endorsement to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s proposal that would allow Gov. Deval Patrick to name an interim senator in the event of a vacancy. The interim would serve until a special election could be held five months later. With Kennedy’s battle against brain cancer apparently entering its final stages, the matter has taken on special urgency.

In supporting Kennedy’s proposal, the Globe criticizes the Legislature for having taken the gubernatorial appointment away five years ago, when it appeared that Sen. John Kerry might be elected president and Democratic leaders at the Statehouse did not want then-governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, to name Kerry’s successor. The Globe calls the 2004 law “a partisan bill.”

Which, of course, it was. And which leads the Herald to invoke that same 2004 action as a reason to reject Kennedy’s current proposal, in an editorial headlined “Hypocrisy factor.”

Yet Kennedy is not proposing that the 2004 be repealed. Instead, he’s suggesting a slight tweak that would benefit the state, which otherwise would go without a vote in the Senate for five months. (I’ll note without comment that Massachusetts went without two full-time senators during Kerry’s presidential campaign and, now, through long stretches of Kennedy’s illness.)

Kennedy’s idea is to choose a person who would make a personal pledge not to run in the special election. The Herald observes that Romney had proposed a similar provision only to get shot down. But that’s no reason not to adopt a good idea now. And I’ll go one better. Assuming there isn’t some constitutional reason not to do it, why not write the no-run requirement directly into the Kennedy proposal and give it the force of law?

Obviously that’s not going to satisfy Herald columnist Howie Carr, who portrays Kennedy’s move as one last grand gesture of deathbed hackery — and makes much of the fact that Kennedy’s letter to state leaders, reportedly sent on Tuesday, is dated July 2 (a catch made yesterday by friend of Media Nation Beth Wellington). Carr takes the mysterious timing of the letter as a sign that Kennedy’s time is almost up, and he may be right.

But so what? This strikes me as a can’t-lose idea. The benefit of the 2004 law would remain intact — Kennedy’s successor would be chosen at the ballot box, not by the governor. Meanwhile, the state would continue to have representation in the Senate.

Which is why I’m especially intrigued by Globe columnist Scot Lehigh’s suggestion that former governor Michael Dukakis fill the role as interim senator. (Disclosure: Dukakis is a colleague of mine at Northeastern, although only to the extent that we exchange hand waves.)

Media Nation commenter Amused thinks Dukakis “comes with too much baggage, a lot of it unjustifiable.” I disagree. Dukakis’ three terms as governor did not end well, but, outside the exceedingly small universe of talk radio, he is mainly seen as competent and honest. And, as Lehigh notes, Dukakis knows health-care policy. It’s a great idea.

A final note. Also in the Herald, once and future Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom quotes from a 2004 Boston Phoenix editorial supporting the bill that took away the gubernatorial appointment. I may well have had a hand in writing that editorial — I recognize some of the clichés as being all mine.

But the editorial specifically objected to the idea of a governor filling the remainder of a senator’s term if his seat became vacant. In Kerry’s case, that would have been two years. By contrast, what we’re talking about now is having an interim, temporary senator appointed as soon as there’s a vacancy, followed by a special election five months later. That’s quite a difference.

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Democracy and the Senate


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  1. Aaron Read

    Yeah! Put Dukakis in as senator for five months, then appoint him head of the MBTA and give him some union-busting power!That'll shake things up nicely.Not to get off on a tangent, but I always thought Grabauskas got a bum rap as head of the MBTA. He was in a nearly impossible position: caught between multiple, conflicting lawsuits dragging the T in opposite directions, hobbled by a budget system that was guaranteed to fail, and smothered by some of the most powerful (and useless) labor unions in the state.Despite that, you could see Grabauskas quietly and adroitly working the system to slowly effect change, rather than publicly blustering to look good for the cameras while accomplishing nothing in the process (cough cough Masspike Authority cough).Unfortunately I don't think anyone, no matter how skilled, was going to win at the T…the deck's stacked too much against them at this point.Mind you, I'm not canonizing Grabauskas by any stretch. He had has flamingly useless moments. Even borderline (if not blatantly) corrupt moments, too. And he had an infuriating knack for treating the traveling public like idiots…although admittedly that might have actually won him points with the unions.Now, give the Duke some real power and a real budget and he'll have the trains running on time within two years!(disclosure: I saw Dukakis speak at a small BU seminar about ten years and talked to him briefly afterwards…if that really matters)

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: Forced to choose between Aliosi and Grabauskas, I think I would move out of state.

  3. lkcape

    This whole matter leads me to believe that there is a channeling of people's inner Hugo Chavez.Manipulation like this occurs banana republics.

  4. bob gardner

    "I don't think Kennedy is seeking a change in the law so much as a tweak" Dan–would the legislature have to pass this change and have it signed by the governor, or could they do the whole thing on twitter? The damage that is done by going without one senator is a lot less than the damage that it done by trying to rig the way senators get picked every time there is a different party in power.

  5. Nial Liszt

    Hey Dan, who played you in "Between the Lines"? 🙂

  6. lkcape

    …Or even the same party in power….

  7. Rich

    Dan,A lawyer friend of mine points out your proposal (writing the promise not to run in the special) into the law would violate the US Constitution. Case law holds it unconstitutional for the US govt or states to impose any eligibility requirements on federal officers beyond what is in the US Constitution. (Same reason why term limit laws for US reps and US senators have been struck down in the past.)So such a provision in the law would be void. Likewise any promise not to run made to Deval pursuant to the appointment would be unenforceable.Too bad. I liked your idea.

  8. Aaron Read

    I didn't have to choose, Dan. I just moved……to New York. Oops.

  9. NewsHound

    As usual, this is not a matter of principle; it is a matter of manipulation. Very, very sleazy! An honorable person would now, or would have already resigned allowing the process for a special election to have already begun. The letter was written six weeks ago.I, like many others, am sorry for the Senator's ill health. But, I do not welcome his continued pattern of sleaze and betrayal of principle.

  10. George Williams

    If the Senator were really serious about this, he would resign. If he is not resigning, then the law is the law and what was good enough for Romney should be good enough for Patrick.

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