Jan. 19 set for Senate election

Potential rivals await word from Joseph Kennedy

By Frank Phillips and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 1, 2009

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Governor Deval Patrick yesterday set Jan. 19 for the state’s first-ever special election to fill a US Senate seat, as potential successors to Edward M. Kennedy begin to prepare campaigns and wait anxiously for word on whether Joseph P. Kennedy II or another member of the family jumps into the race.

Under Patrick’s calendar, candidates will have to file nomination papers by late October and the party primaries would be held on Dec. 8. But the five-month race, which will cost taxpayers an estimated $5.4 million, is expected to take shape almost immediately as contenders begin building their campaigns, raising money, and positioning themselves in the field.

The governor’s announcement comes as the political world awaits a signal from Joe Kennedy, a former member of the US House, on whether he will seek his uncle’s seat. With three members of Congress and the state’s attorney general seriously considering running, Kennedy’s deci sion is expected to significantly shape the Democratic primary race.

Kennedy is being urged to run by some relatives who would like to keep the seat in the family, and he could announce his intentions as soon as this week, according to people close to the family. Edward Kennedy’s wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, is also facing calls to enter the race, though a family confidant told the Globe before her husband’s death that she was not interested.

A Kennedy’s entry into the campaign would prompt two prospective candidates, US Representatives Edward J. Markey and Michael Capuano, to back off, according to those advising them. Two other potential contenders, Attorney General Martha Coakley and US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, would probably remain in the race, according to their advisers.

A state legislative committee, meanwhile, will hold a hearing next week on a bill to allow Patrick to appoint an interim senator while the special election is held, a signal that Beacon Hill is moving to accommodate Edward Kennedy’s request that Massachusetts maintain two voices in the Senate while voters select his successor.

The House and Senate chairmen of the Joint Committee on Election Laws announced they had moved the hearing date from early October to Sept. 9. The bill could come to the floor of both the House and Senate within days after the hearing.

With major national issues at stake - chief among them a proposed overhaul of the nation’s health care system - the succession race and the issue of a temporary appointment have drawn national attention. C-Span covered Patrick’s press conference yesterday live. The governor used his appearance to continue to push for the power to make an interim appointment.

“My job right now is to think of the best interests of the commonwealth,’’ he said. “And I think having a full complement - two voices in the United States Senate - is in the best interests of the commonwealth. We have a stake in this health care debate in the Congress right now, we have a stake in the climate change bill, and in education.’’

Washington Democrats have pressured Beacon Hill leaders to fill the seat, to ensure that they maintain their 60-vote majority in the Senate. The proposal, which Kennedy made a week before he died, had initially faced some resistance on Beacon Hill. But the legislation has gained support in recent days.

Republicans charge that the Democrats are just trying to make a power grab. In 2004, the Democrat-controlled Legislature took the power to fill a vacant Senate away from then-governor Mitt Romney because lawmakers did not want him to have the chance, in the event Senator John F. Kerry won the presidency, to fill his seat with a Republican. That new law created the special election process.

State Representative George N. Peterson Jr., who supported giving the governor interim appointment powers in the debate over the law in 2004, said he will vote “present’’ because he said Democrats are acting out of purely political motives.

“It’s too bad we are changing laws based on politics and not about the best interests of Massachusetts,’’ said Peterson, the House assistant minority leader.

Patrick said he felt legislators are “moving as fast as they can’’ to consider the change in law. “I don’t think by any means it is a certainty that it will happen. I think that they are trying to find a path from here to there to honor, as I say, the very reasonable request of Senator Kennedy.’’

But the governor acknowledged he is hardly thrilled he has been put in this position.

“You want me to be honest? I don’t need this headache,’’ the governor said. “By that I mean the purely political business of saying yes to someone and no to a lot of other people . . . But this seems to me to be a nice, and rather elegant, compromise.’’