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Kerry joins the call for interim senator

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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Senator John F. Kerry joined dozens of residents, public officials, and labor representatives yesterday in urging state lawmakers to give Governor Deval Patrick the power to appoint an interim senator to fill Edward M. Kennedy’s seat for five months.

“This is no time for the people of Massachusetts to not be represented fully in Washington,’’ Kerry told the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws. “We need to be in the strongest position possible. Big decisions are being made now, not in five months. And important votes are coming now, not in five months.

“It comes down to a simple question: At this historic moment, do you believe that Massachusetts should have two votes in the United States Senate or just one?’’

Kerry’s testimony highlighted a packed hearing that lasted more than five hours in a State House auditorium, where lawmakers weighed the value of having full representation in the Senate - at a time of big-ticket policy proposals, chiefly President Obama’s controversial health care plan - against the political consequences of almost certainly helping the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill tighten its grip on power.

Before his death last month, Kennedy wrote to Patrick and legislative leaders, urging them to change the law, saying it was vital for the state to have “two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate.’’ Supporters of the change yesterday evoked Kennedy’s plea, with one person at a rally before the hearing holding a sign that read, “Honor His Last Request.’’

“At this moment in time, it is absolutely essential that Massachusetts not go underrepresented,’’ said US Representative William D. Delahunt, who testified beside Kerry. “All hands on deck.’’

The bill could come to the floor of both the House and Senate within days, though its passage is hardly assured. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have been conspicuously passive on the issue.

State Senator Jack Hart, a South Boston Democrat, said his constituents have been calling and are overwhelmingly skeptical about “political chicanery, the sense of a sleight of hand.’’

“All of us on the panel have some thinking to do about . . . the benefits and what’s best for the state versus the fact that many people in Massachusetts are a little bit tired of what they see from this Legislature, which is not held in the highest regards,’’ he said.

Republican legislators, vastly outnumbered on the committee, bristled at the plan to return to the governor the appointment power that the Legislature took away just five years ago, calling it a bald power grab. Back then, Republican Mitt Romney was governor, and Democratic lawmakers worried that he would appoint a member of his party to fill Kerry’s seat if Kerry were to win the presidency.

“If Kerry Healey were governor today, would you be here advocating as strong as you are now?’’ asked state Representative Paul Frost, an Auburn Republican, referring to the Republican candidate for governor in 2006 and spurring applause from the audience in Gardner Auditorium.

“If Ted Kennedy wrote the letter he wrote, I don’t care who was governor, I’d be here advocating,’’ Kerry responded, drawing a round of hearty applause from the crowd.

Patrick has set Jan. 19 as the date for a special election. But he agreed with the urgency to appoint someone to represent the state’s interests in the interim - someone, he insists, with no intention of seeking the seat on a permanent basis.

“If given this authority, I will appoint someone who will make a personal commitment to me not to be a candidate in the upcoming special election,’’ Patrick, who is recovering from hip surgery, wrote to lawmakers.

The entire Massachusetts congressional delegation also wrote to lawmakers yesterday, asking that the law be changed. Not acting, they wrote, would mean “putting the residents of the Commonwealth at a disadvantage compared to other states.’’

In his 23-minute testimony, Kerry spoke of the importance of every vote in Washington, pointing to historic one-vote margins that ended the filibuster on the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and kept President Andrew Johnson in office in 1868. He also noted that last February Kennedy defied doctors’ orders and flew to Washington for an important procedural vote on Obama’s stimulus package, which passed 61 to 36, just one vote more than needed to advance the bill.

“This is not just theoretical,’’ Kerry said. “The history of America has, on more than one occasion, turned as a result of one or two or three votes in the Senate.’’

That led Republicans to question Kerry’s own voting record in the Senate, particularly his many missed votes when he was running for president in 2004. Kerry responded that every senator who runs for president - including Republicans John McCain, Orrin G. Hatch, and Bob Dole - missed votes during their own campaigns.

State Senator Scott Brown, a Wrentham Republican who is considering a run for Kennedy’s seat, also pressed Kerry on Kennedy using his influence to change the law in 2004.

“And by writing the letter that he wrote and putting himself on the line, I think he acknowledged that that was a mistake,’’ Kerry responded.

Kerry said he himself had deliberately not weighed in on the change in 2004, saying it would have been “entirely inappropriate for me as a candidate.’’

After another pointed exchange with the House minority leader, Bradley H. Jones Jr., Kerry asked lawmakers to think about serving the state’s needs first, regardless of political allegiances.

“Can I say to you all, let’s try to strip the politics away,’’ Kerry said. “Let’s think about this on a human level.’’

Some legislators pointed to Kennedy’s constituent services and their concerns that residents would face delays in getting help on federal issues such as immigration and public housing.

“Some of us have very urgent situations,’’ said Crystal Evans, a 28-year-old Somerville resident who uses a wheelchair because of mitochondrial disease, a progressive disorder.

Evans said she had been working with Kennedy’s office to try to get Section 8 housing more quickly, because the apartment where she lives has an electrical problem that causes her wheelchair to malfunction. She said she may not be around to see Kennedy’s successor elected.

“I need someone to advocate for me,’’ she said through tears. “The harder I work trying to advocate for myself, the sicker I am getting.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.