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Scot Lehigh

Lawmakers, what’s best for state?

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / September 9, 2009

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TODAY, OUR LANGUOROUS Legislature officially starts considering whether this state should have an interim US senator during the special election for Ted Kennedy’s successor.

As they mull the matter, lawmakers should be guided by a simple principle: What’s best for Massachusetts citizens?

So far this issue has gotten mired in accusations of hypocrisy. And assertions that Senator Kennedy should have resigned if he truly cared about the state having two active senators. And by Machiavellian worries about whether this Senate candidate or that might be helped or hurt by having an interim appointee - one who pledged not to run in the special election, mind you - hold the seat on a temporary basis.

But a clarity-catalyzing focus on the best interest of citizens points to the right answer. Given the critical issues on the national agenda and the vital constituent work Kennedy’s first-rate staff has long done, an interim appointment is the way to go.

By now, everyone knows the partisan past that’s prologue here. Beacon Hill Democrats, urged on by none other than Kennedy himself, changed the law in 2004 to establish a special election. It was a power grab, motivated by their desire not to let Republican Mitt Romney appoint someone for the last two years of John Kerry’s Senate term if Kerry won the presidency.

Democratic lawmakers changed the process by establishing a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat. They also voted down a GOP amendment to allow for a interim appointment while that election took place. In 2006, Democrats rejected further Republican attempts to provide for an interim appointment.

Fast forward to the present. Kennedy, in a letter sent shortly before his death, urged that the governor be allowed to appoint an interim senator for the approximately five months a special election takes.

Republicans have greeted that proposed change with howls about hypocrisy. And certainly if one is a Democratic legislator who opposed the idea of an interim appointment in 2004 or 2006 but supports it now, the Republicans make a good point.

Still, hypocrisy can be a double-edged sword. If one favored the idea of an interim appointment back then, as the Republicans did, it’s also hypocritical to oppose such an appointment now.

And as for other arguments?

Well, some opponents charge this proposal is simply an underhanded Democratic attempt to gain advantage in the health care debate. But if one’s guiding principle is what’s good for Massachusetts citizens, that argument falls apart. After all, every state is entitled to two US senators. Thus all we’re talking about is maintaining this state’s Senate presence during the special.

Nor, for that matter, would an interim appointment change the Senate math from what it would be if Kennedy hadn’t fallen ill and died.

Although still other critics claim it would be a disservice to voters to allow an unelected appointee a voice on something as important as health care reform, that makes scant sense. After all, appointing someone who favored near universal health care would reflect the view that voters endorsed when they last re-elected Ted Kennedy, long a champion of that very cause.

All that said, House minority leader Brad Jones does raise a good point when he wonders how anyone can have any confidence that Democrats won’t change the law yet again if a Republican wins the corner office and another Senate vacancy looms. There are no guarantees, of course, but I suspect that even the Legislature would blanch at a further flip-flop that was that blatantly cynical.

As for how to ensure that an interim appointee keeps a commitment not to seek the seat on a permanent basis, the view here is that citizens themselves would offer the best safeguard, by refusing to vote for someone who had broken a promise so recently made.

No solution is perfect, obviously. But if legislators focus on doing right by the state’s citizens, the correct course here will be clear. Massachusetts needs an interim senator while we go about electing someone to fill Ted Kennedy’s oversized shoes.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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