Joan Vennochi

Therese Murray’s next move

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 13, 2009

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SENATE PRESIDENT Therese Murray has no trouble thwarting the governor. Would she also thwart the president?

Murray is the most powerful woman in Massachusetts politics. She supports Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

Like House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Murray is publicly noncommittal about the proposal to change state law to allow the governor to appoint an interim senator. Lawmakers are generally unenthusiastic about it, because it means changing a law to benefit Democrats, after they changed it to hurt Republicans. Murray is unenthusiastic, possibly because she also wants to do everything to help Coakley. Allowing someone else to establish even a temporary base of operations in Washington is not considered helpful to any Senate candidate.

But President Obama is personally pushing Massachusetts lawmakers to change the law. Obama, who is close to Governor Deval Patrick, originally said he would not get involved. However, last week, he invoked Kennedy’s memory when he made his case for health care reform before a joint session of Congress. Representatives from Obama’s political committee also circulated an e-mail to supporters urging them to call Bay State lawmakers to support an interim senator.

In a state long dominated by male politicians, Murray, the first female president of the Massachusetts Senate, has political muscle she is unafraid to flex. She called Patrick “irrelevant’’ last May and went out of her way to praise Republican Charlie Baker when the Harvard Pilgrim CEO announced plans to run for governor in 2010.

Now she’s putting her muscle behind Coakley’s bid to become the first female senator from Massachusetts.

She has not publicly endorsed Coakley. But at a Charlestown meeting for Coakley volunteers last week, Murray told the crowd, “I’m with Martha Coakley,’’ according to Judy Silver of Weston, who blogged about it on Asked about the role she can play, Murray replied, “I can do a lot of things and say a lot things that she can’t.’’

Her support for Coakley is a reprise of the role Murray played locally for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The Senate president led a coalition of politically active women who helped Clinton beat Obama in last year’s Massachusetts Democratic primary. Clinton’s ultimate failure to capture the Democratic nomination was hugely disappointing. So was the early support Obama received from the two senators from Massachusetts, Kennedy and John Kerry.

At the time, Murray declared, “I don’t want to be pushed aside anymore. I don’t want to be patted on the head, saying, ‘You did a good job on that, but now we got this young person, we got this attractive man, because you can’t get elected because the media said you couldn’t, because the polls said you couldn’t. We’re going to put this guy out front.’ ’’

Even after Clinton released her delegates at the Democratic presidential convention in Denver, Murray voted for Clinton, saying at the time that she was voting “for history.’’

She is also backing Coakley “for history.’’ She told Coakley supporters last week that the Senate vacancy is a “once in a four-generation opportunity . . . Every 46 and a half years these seats come up. I’m not going to be around in 46 and a half years . . . I don’t want to wait.’’

Obama’s agenda versus the chance to send the first Massachusetts woman to the US Senate. Healthcare - the fight of Kennedy’s life - versus hypocrisy - allowing a Democratic governor to appoint an interim senator after changing the law so a Republican governor couldn’t. The Democratic agenda, which Murray embraces, versus an uncivil Republican congressman from South Carolina who heckled the president during his health care address.

It now sounds like Murray is edging toward changing the law. Last week she said that US Representative Joseph Wilson’s outburst was changing opinions in the Legislature. “There’s a lot of outrage about that,’’ she said.

All politics is local. But sometimes even the most powerful politicians bow to forces beyond home.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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