David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The slight, bespectacled man has spent much of his life next to the spotlight, the aide standing in the background as a senator gripped the podium. But today, it was Paul G. Kirk Jr. who stepped up to the microphone, greeted by polite applause as he accepted the appointment as an interim US senator.
Standing in the glare of television cameras, Kirk continued to play the part of the low-key assistant, still making an effort not to outshine his late boss.
"During our years together, I was personally privileged to have had Senator Kennedy's friendship, his trust, and his confidence," Kirk said in his brief remarks at a State House press conference. "He often said that representing the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the Senate of the United States was the highest honor he could possibly imagine.
"And it's certainly nothing I imagined," Kirk said with a grin curling at the edge of his mouth, "but it will be my highest honor as well."
The 71-year-old attorney lives in Marstons Mills on Cape Cod with his wife, Gail. He has been described as dry and understated, a behind-the-scenes operative who has quietly had a hand in Democratic politics for decades. Kirk first went to work as a special assistant for Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1969 and has remained such a close family friend that he served as master of ceremonies at the late senator's memorial service last month. He helped found the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and is currently its chairman.
"He knows my father, he knows my father's staff, he knows the people of Massachusetts," said one of the late senator's sons, Ted Kennedy Jr. "And I think you ask anyone, Democrat or Republican, and you’ll find out that there’s no one who’s more respected to do this job than Paul."
Kirk has been both a Democratic Party stalwart and a nonpartisan civic activist. He was the public face of the Democratic Party during the end of the Reagan administration, serving as national chairman from 1985 to 1989. At the same time, Kirk helped found the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987, an effort to bring civil discourse to national campaigns.
In Massachusetts, Kirk helped stop the New England Patriots from moving to Connecticut. He organized and led the successful effort to keep the football team in Foxborough, according to Kirk's biography on the Kennedy Library's website.
Kirk is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He serves on a committee at his alma mater and is also a trustee of Stonehill College in south suburban Easton.
As an attorney, Kirk remains affiliated with Sullivan & Worcester, which has offices in Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York City. He also has a consulting firm that bears his name in Boston and registered as a lobbyist a decade ago. He was paid $35,000 to represent the pharmaceutical company Hoechst Marion Roussel on legislation before the US Senate in 1999, according to federal disclosure records.
Kirk is currently on the board of directors of the Hartford Insurance Group, Rayonier Inc., and Cedar Shopping Centers Inc. He has previously served on the Board of Directors of ITT Corp. and Bradley Real Estate Inc.
But it is his deep ties to the Kennedy family that may serve him best when he arrives in the US Senate. Kirk said today he plans to keep the late senator's staff, a move that may smooth the transition for his four-month tenure until a special election on Jan. 19.
"We have some 800 open cases to be quickly pursued and enacted after I take the oath of office, which I expect will be tomorrow," Kirk said today. "And so I hope that constituents who are waiting anxiously for responses will know that I and Senator Kennedy's excellent staff will continue to be there to serve them in a responsive way."
On the beat
Columnist Shirley Leung says Boston mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh should focus on middle-class housing. Read more