Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick, breaking his silence on the future of Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat, today embraced Kennedy's request that the governor be given the power to appoint someone to the seat until voters can choose a permanent successor in a special election.
Governor Deval Patrick
''I'd like the Legislature to take up the bill quickly and get it to my desk and I will sign it,'' Patrick said in an interview with the Globe, reiterating in his strongest terms what he had been saying throughout the day, as the state and nation absorbed Kennedy's death and what it would mean for Massachusetts, and for the chamber he served for a half-century.
Patrick's public statements add to growing momentum for Kennedy's plea, which he made last week in a poignant letter to the governor and legislative leaders. Kennedy said that while he supported the state's current method of filling vacant a Senate seat through a special election, Massachusetts could not afford to go without two senators at such a critical time.
Under current law, a special election would now be held in January, with a primary scheduled for November or December.
Some on Beacon Hill had been initially cool to the idea of allowing for an interim appointment, but Kennedy's death, plus personal appeals from influential voices, appear to have shifted the dynamic.Kennedy's widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, this week called Senate President Therese Murray, urging Murray to support her husband's request, State House sources said. Murray had indicated privately that she was reluctant to change the law.
While Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo -- whose support for the change in law would be key -- remained publicly noncommittal, the House leader has privately expressed his support for the change, sources involved in the conversations said. Murray in the last few days has signaled that she has softened her opposition and could accept the idea. She even gave the green light to a lieutenant to gather support in the Senate for the legislation.
Vicki Kennedy has also been in regular contact with Patrick in recent days, including today.
Pressure to change the law to allow for a temporary appointment came from Washington, too, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pushing Massachusetts leaders to fill Kennedy's seat quickly. Reid called Patrick personally today to express concern over ''the promptness with which we fill this vacancy,'' Patrick said. The governor said that Reid told him that Senate Democrats needed every vote they could get in what are expected to be close Senate votes on health care and climate change this fall.
"It's a particularly timely request at a time when there are such profoundly important proposals pending in the Congress right now,'' Patrick, speaking at a press conference earlier in the day, said of Kennedy's wish. ''Massachusetts needs two voices in the United States Senate."
Senator John F. Kerry also advocated for the change, stressing that the appointment would only be temporary.
"I believe a temporary appointment would be the right thing to do," Kerry said after leaving the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. "The voice of the people of Massachusetts will be respected."
Publicly, neither Murray nor DeLeo endorsed Kennedy's request. Murray would not comment on her position when she made a public appearance in Hyannis. DeLeo, at a press gathering at the State House, spoke warmly of the late senator but declined to take a strong position on the issue.
“I’m still gathering information,” he said. "I'm still listening to folks ... I feel that after the proper period of time, I’m going to sit down, talk to members, and talk to advocates."
DeLeo said his office has been getting emails from across the country, pro and con. DeLeo also faces some opposition from some of his members, who are already feeling the political heat after the Legislature approved a series of tax increases this summer.
“In relatively short order, I daresay probably within the next month or so, there will probably be a hearing on the subject,” DeLeo said.
Kennedy had asked in his letter that the governor elicit a commitment from his appointee not to run for the office permanently. State House leaders have concluded that they cannot legally bar any appointee from doing so. The US Supreme Court, in a decision throwing out state term-limit laws imposed on members of Congress, ruled that states cannot set qualifications for holding elected federal office.
The timing of Kennedy's death may prompt some other changes in the law. Some election experts on Beacon Hill are suggesting that the current window for the election -- set by statute to take place within 145 to 160 days of a vacancy -- will not work, because it comes smack in the middle of the holiday season. There is also concern that bad winter weather could seriously dampen voter participation.
Republicans continue to press their case that the Democrats, who had rejected a GOP attempt for a temporary appointment provision five years ago, were hypocrites. Beacon Hill Democrats, not wanting to give Republican governor Mitt Romney appointment powers in 2004, changed the statute to require a special election.
Patrick, asked about the critique of hypocrisy, said he was not in office in 2004. He reiterated that he believes the state needs two voices, citing health care and climate change legislation pending in Congress.
Matt Viser and Brian MacQuarrie of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
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