Adrian Walker

Stuck on Senate seat

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / September 1, 2009

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Our lawmakers are having a wonderful time on vacation.

They must be, because otherwise surely they would be at work attending to the most pressing issue that will come before them this year, our sadly open US Senate seat.

Governor Patrick announced the date of the election yesterday and reiterated his support for an interim appointee who would serve until a new senator is elected Jan. 19.

But for the TV cameras capturing his appearance, he could have been speaking in an echo chamber. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has weighed in on the matter, along with a lot of the Democratic establishment in Washington.

Beacon Hill, however, can’t figure out what to do.

The governor, who has often seemed frustrated with the slow pace of the legislative process was more conciliatory yesterday. “I think they’re moving as fast as they can to assure success,’’ he said

But actually, they’ve hardly moved at all, and it is far from clear that they even want what he calls success. Neither House Speaker Robert DeLeo nor Senate President Therese Murray has ever come right out and endorsed the idea of an interim senator, and Murray has been especially circumspect.

Yes, I know the law was changed in 2004 to prevent Mitt Romney from being able to appoint a senator. That was a stupid, craven move. It was lousy government at its worst.

But the Republicans who are not howling about “hypocrisy’’ need to take a look in the mirror. Most of them supported the idea of an interim appointment at the time. So why is it a bad idea now?

Patrick has also been on both sides of this issue, but at least he is honest enough to admit it. In truth, he was against the idea barely a month ago. He was well aware that he could not appoint a senator without alienating the supporters of all those he rejected, and had no appetite for a fight in which he, frankly, had little to gain.

“I don’t need this headache,’’ he said yesterday. “By that I mean, the purely political business of saying ‘yes’ to someone and ‘no’ to a bunch of other people.’’ He described Kennedy’s proposal as “an elegant compromise’’ balancing the need for representation with the principle that senators really should be elected.

In doing so, he recognized that Kennedy’s last days and passing have changed this debate. Kennedy eloquently laid out both a rationale and a sensible process for a temporary appointment. The opponents of the idea, meanwhile, have been reduced to clichés about changing the rules in the middle of a game.

Politicians have short memories. That would explain why House Minority Leader Brad Jones has completely forgotten saying this in 2004:

“To allow the state to go without representation is just wrong,’’ Jones said then, according to the State House News Service. “It is a poor decision made for partisan reasons. No matter how much sugar you coat it with, it’s just wrong.’’

While the Republican posturing is disappointing, the silence of the Democratic leadership is a far bigger problem, given that Democrats have most of the votes in the Legislature.

The dithering of DeLeo and Murray is almost enough to make one long for the days of leaders like William Bulger and Tom Finneran, people who know how to make decisions and execute them. Instead, we get statements from leadership that don’t say anything.

I asked a spokesman for Murray yesterday if his boss had any plans to take a position on this somewhat important issue. “She’s going to take a thoughtful and thorough approach,’’ was his reply.

This is a window into the way Beacon Hill operates in 2009.There’s no shortage of tough talk, but paralysis rules.

In the next few months, Congress will consider health care reform, climate change, and a host of other issues. Meanwhile, Massachusetts is debating whether it is better to have one senator, or two. This is our Legislature, stuck in neutral.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at