Signs point to Kirk for interim senator

By Matt Viser and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / September 24, 2009

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Governor Deval Patrick huddled with a small group of trusted advisers last night to finalize his choice for an interim US senator, with indications pointing to former Democratic National Committee chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., who has the strong backing of the immediate family of the late Edward M. Kennedy, as the overwhelming favorite.

A person with knowledge of the process said last night that former governor Michael S. Dukakis, considered a leading candidate for the appointment, was unlikely to be chosen. At the same time, senior Democrats in Washington told The New York Times that they were certain Kirk would be the choice.

Patrick remained mum about his selection. Speaking to reporters in Boston last night, he declined to disclose whether he had settled on an appointee, saying only: “This is a very serious and important decision. I expect to make it very, very soon.’’

The governor will announce the appointment at an 11 a.m. press conference today at the State House.

Patrick was expected to begin making phone calls last night to the candidates he chose not to appoint, with members of the state’s congressional delegation being told of his choice this morning.

For weeks, it has been clear that this is not a choice that Patrick relishes making and not one that either he or his aides believe will benefit him politically. Some advisers and observers believe that, regardless of whom he chooses, he will anger key elements of the Democratic establishment. Further, many moderates and independents do not believe Patrick should even have the power to pick someone.

Such ill will is a heavy price to pay, some believe, for an appointment that will last only a few months. Voters will choose a new senator in a special election Jan. 19.

“It’s an unenviable task,’’ said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist, “a great opportunity fraught with peril.’’

Patrick gained the power to appoint a temporary senator yesterday, with the Massachusetts Legislature giving final approval to a controversial bill that changes the state’s election law for the second time in five years. The change, which Kennedy urged shortly before his death, will allow Patrick, once he signs the bill, to appoint someone to Kennedy’s seat until a special election is held Jan. 19.

The interim senator could be sworn in within days after the secretary of the US Senate receives a certification of appointment from the governor, according to Beth Provenzano, a spokeswoman for the secretary’s office. The new senator could begin assembling a staff almost immediately, she said.

Patrick has been conferring in recent days with a small group of his closest advisers, including Doug Rubin, his campaign strategist and former chief of staff; Arthur Bernard, his current chief of staff; John Walsh, chairman of the state Democratic Party; and William M. Cowen, an attorney at Mintz Levin and a close confidant.

But the governor is getting an earful from well beyond his inner circle. He has been fielding phone calls from a wide array of competing political interests eager to influence his decision.

Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, has weighed in, telling the governor that she prefers Kirk, according to a Kennedy family associate. Her views add further pressure to fill the interim appointment with the longtime Kennedy friend and former staff member, a man so close to the family he was chosen as master of ceremonies at Kennedy’s memorial service the night before the funeral last month.

The Globe reported yesterday that Kennedy’s two sons, US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island and Edward M. Kennedy Jr., have also told Patrick that Kirk is their first choice.

“Paul Kirk cares enormously about our state, and that’s why he’s been such a trusted friend to the Kennedy family and to me,’’ Senator John F. Kerry said yesterday. “But this is the governor’s decision now, just as it’s the peoples’ choice in January, and I’m not engaging in the speculation game.’’

Though there remained the possibility last night that Patrick would choose someone else, Kirk would be an obvious choice for sentimental reasons, political observers say.

Kirk, a 71-year-old attorney who lives on Cape Cod, worked as a special assistant to Senator Kennedy from 1969 to 1977, and is currently the chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. He is familiar with many on Kennedy’s former staff and could help smooth the transition.

Kirk was registered as a lobbyist a decade ago. He was paid $35,000 to represent the pharmaceutical company Hoechst Marion Roussel on legislation before the US Senate in 1999, according to federal disclosure records. He is currently on the board of directors of the Hartford Insurance Group.

But choosing Kirk could alienate a core group of Patrick’s supporters who remain loyal to Dukakis. The former governor had been filling out paperwork as part of the vetting process by Patrick advisers, according to a second person familiar with the process.

Patrick is facing lobbying on Dukakis’s behalf from political associates of the onetime presidential candidate, erstwhile members of his inner circle, and party activists, all of whom make up a part of the Democratic Party that was central to Patrick’s 2006 campaign and, according to some analysts, would be very important to his struggling reelection bid.

Patrick “needs to have those people feel enthusiastic about his reelection,’’ said Democratic strategist Dan Payne, who worked for Dukakis campaigns in the 1980s. “If he doesn’t choose Dukakis, they will sit on their hands, and he can’t afford that.’’

Some Kennedy insiders who support Kirk’s appointment, though, have argued that Dukakis is too outspoken on health care issues, espousing liberal positions that could complicate Democrats’ attempts in Washington to moderate their approach on the legislation.

Among other names mentioned by observers are Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree and former lieutenant governor Evelyn Murphy.

The Massachusetts bill giving Patrick appointment powers was enacted yesterday by the House, 95 to 59, and by the Senate, 24 to 16, after only brief speeches.

“I’m glad the bill is finally passed,’’ Senate President Therese Murray told reporters after the vote. “I think the debate over the last two days made it very clear that we need two votes in the US Senate.’’

She insisted that she has no preference on the appointment.

“I do not want any input,’’ she said. “I’m sure he will deliberate and choose wisely.’’

Republicans had been contemplating a last-ditch legal challenge, but have backed away.

“There’s no need to delay for the sake of delay at this point,’’ Senate minority leader Richard Tisei told reporters after the vote. “The vote’s been cast, and I hope the governor picks somebody who can represent the state well for the next couple of months.’’

Supporters of the bill failed to muster enough votes to include an emergency provision that would make the law effective immediately. The governor has the authority to implement the law immediately upon his signature, as long as he sends a procedural letter to Secretary of State William F. Galvin. Four House Republicans sent a letter last night asking the Supreme Judicial Court to issue an advisery opinion on whether Patrick has the power to put the law in place immediately, though Galvin said that has been relatively routine.

Proponents have argued that the state needs two senators in Washington when crucial issues are being debated, chief among them President Obama’s plans for overhauling health care. Critics, including Republicans and some Democrats, argued that the move was hypocritical, because the Legislature rejected the notion of gubernatorial appointment power in 2004 when the governor was a Republican.

“It is stunning how quick Bay State Democrats were to bow to political pressure from Washington,’’ Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said in a statement.

Not that Patrick enjoys being in this position.

“You want me to be honest?’’ the governor told reporters three weeks ago. “I don’t need this headache.’’

Joseph Williams of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at