For the first time in nearly 47 years, the seat held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is about to change hands, with the interim successor likely one of his closest advisers.
The latest speculation about who might receive the temporary appointment from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick – perhaps by week’s end – has focused squarely on Paul Kirk, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who was a long-time Kennedy aide.
In recent days, Kirk along with Michael Dukakis, the former governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, have emerged as leading contenders for the job. But Democratic insiders and sources on Beacon Hill say Kirk has picked up momentum in the last day or so.
On Wednesday, the Boston Globe and other media reported that Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, told the governor that she wants Kirk to fill the seat. Kennedy’s sons, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Edward M. Kennedy Jr., have reportedly also made their support of Kirk known to the governor.
Patrick’s aides have remained silent on the vetting process, but he has signaled he would waste no time in signing a bill giving him the authority to name a temporary successor, which appears headed to his desk.
Kirk, 71, who is chairman of the Board of Directors of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, led a tribute to the late senator at the library after his death last month.
Kirk served as a special assistant to the senator from 1969 to 1977 and worked on his ill-fated 1980 presidential campaign.
“There is no question that Paul Kirk will continue to do the work Ted Kennedy would have done if he were here,” said Boston-based Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh. “He’s not going to be Ted Kennedy, but he certainly will vote like him and the office will operate the way it would have under Kennedy.”
A spokeswoman for Kirk said he had no comment.
Patrick’s appointment would be a boost for Democrats and the White House, who have been seeking a 60th vote for a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate with crucial votes on health care reform legislation and other initiatives looming.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and White House senior adviser David Axelrod, among other top Democrats in Washington, have been leaning on legislators in Massachusetts to change the state’s succession law. And Patrick has said that President Barack Obama also spoke with him about the Senate vacancy at Kennedy’s funeral.
The bill that would allow the governor to temporarily fill the seat has had something of a rough ride through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, with Republicans using parliamentary delaying tactics to stall it.
It passed the state House of Representatives Friday, 95-58, after hours of fierce debate, and won approval in the state Senate on Tuesday by a narrower margin, 24 to 16. Eleven Democrats joined five Republicans there to oppose it.
Some Democratic legislators appeared worried that their support for the change could be seen by their constituents as hypocritical since many of the same lawmakers who voted to grant the governor the authority to make an interim pick this year stripped then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, of that power in 2004.
At the time, Democrats worried that Romney would appoint a fellow Republican to serve in the Senate, should Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, win the White House.
The new legislation does not bar the interim Senate appointee from running in the Jan. 19 special election to permanently fill the seat -- a restriction that the governor acknowledged would likely have been unconstitutional. Instead, to remove any taint of an unfair political advantage, Patrick has said he would elicit a personal promise from his appointee not to run.
Kirk has never held public office. But in addition to his ties to the Kennedy library, he also serves as co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates and on the boards of directors of three corporations, including the Hartford Financial Services Group, one of the country’s largest insurance and investment companies.
He is affiliated with the Boston law firm, Sullivan and Worcester, and is also chairman and CEO of Kirk and Associates, a business advisory and consulting firm.
Marty Linksy, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former Republican Massachusetts state legislator, described Kirk as “one of those classic behind-the-scenes guys.”
“He has no interest in being well known,” Linsky said. “But everybody knows him, and he knows everybody.”