Platitudes succumb to politics as Mass. Democrats maneuver for Senate seat

Governor Deval Patrick endorsed Elizabeth Warren for the US Senate on Wednesday.
Governor Deval Patrick endorsed Elizabeth Warren for the US Senate on Wednesday.
Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Massachusetts Democrats have offered a lot of platitudes but succumbed to raw political calculation in recent years as they’ve maneuvered to maintain or regain control over the state’s US Senate seats.

In 2004, when it looked like John Kerry might be elected president and then-Governor Mitt Romney would get to appoint a fellow Republican to replace him in the Senate, Democrats in the Legislature changed the state’s succession law. Overriding Romney’s veto, they required a special election—rather than a direct gubernatorial appointment—to fill a vacancy.

Democrats said the people should speak.

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In 2009, after Senator Edward M. Kennedy died, legislative Democrats changed the law again. They allowed the governor to immediately fill any vacancy with an interim senator while the special election campaign was held.

And they did so despite arguing against just such an interim appointment when Republicans proposed it during the 2004 debate.

Democrats said the state should have continuous representation in Washington—especially as President Obama’s health care law was being debated.

Governor Deval Patrick tried to make peace, with the state’s top Democrat saying he would not give the temporary appointment to anyone who would run in the special election. He conceded that incumbency, even briefly, could give that person an unfair advantage in such a truncated race. Kennedy friend Paul G. Kirk Jr. got the appointment and kept the promise by not running.

But Patrick approved the law change knowing it would be unconstitutional to require any future governor to keep his personal promise.

That means Democrats succeeding him can tilt special election campaigns in their party’s favor if they want.

Scott Brown exacted a measure of revenge for his fellow Republicans in 2010 by winning the special election for Kennedy’s seat. That never would have happened if Democrats didn’t start fiddling with the Senate succession law in 2004.

Now the governor has decided to endorse Elizabeth Warren in this year’s Senate race against Brown—despite vowing last year to stay out of the battle until a primary had been held. That won’t happen until September.

Patrick told reporters Wednesday that even with his backing of Warren, he expects Marisa DeFranco—the North Shore immigration attorney who is the last remaining rival to Warren—to gain enough delegate support during this weekend’s state party convention in Springfield to win a spot on the primary ballot.

A recent Suffolk University poll showed Warren holding an overwhelming lead over DeFranco, 49 percent to 28 percent, but it also showed 22 percent still undecided. And Warren has continued to be dogged by questions about how her claims of Native American heritage may have factored into her career advancement.

After a month of inquiries, Warren acknowledged to the Globe for the first time late Wednesday night that she told Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania that she was Native American, although she continued to insist that race played no role in her recruitment to either institution.

Patrick’s pre-primary endorsement of Warren breaks his prior commitment to avoid any involvement that might affect the primary’s outcome. It also discards the political advice he often brags that he received from Kennedy himself: stay out of contested primaries.

And it gives the impression that the Democratic party apparatus—which is controlled by Patrick’s former campaign manager, John Walsh—is not neutral in either this weekend’s convention or September’s primary election. DeFranco still needs the support of 15 percent of the delegates to qualify for the Democratic primary.

“It’s time for us to turn our attention to our Republican opponent and not be so focused on each other,” the governor said Wednesday.

The neutrality of the party itself was drawn into question last year.

Walsh initially pushed back against suggestions that national Democrats were trying to bolster a Warren candidacy. He said Democrats at the state level favored an organic primary process and believed a free-form campaign would strengthen not just the party, but the eventual nominee.

In July, though, Walsh reversed course. The party chairman encouraged a Warren candidacy, saying: “I would talk to her and encourage her in a heartbeat.”

After she got into the race, other major Democratic contenders bailed out, including Alan Khazei, Setti Warren, and Bob Massie. Each had his respective party constituency.

But perhaps most damning to the Democrats’ philosophical purity in its current Senate pursuit—regaining control of Kennedy’s former seat—is a review of statements made on the subject by Doug Rubin.

He is now Warren’s political strategist after holding the same role for Patrick during his two gubernatorial campaigns.

“The best thing for our state is for candidates who feel like they have a compelling reason to run for US Senate to get in early, do the hard work at the grassroots level, and broaden the Democratic message and vision,” Rubin wrote last June, while he was serving a stint as a Boston Herald columnist and before Warren hired him. “A clean, hard-fought primary will strengthen the party and energize the grassroots.”

On Wednesday, his previous boss discarded those arguments, as well, with his endorsement of Rubin’s current boss.

The governor said he was impressed with Warren’s grassroots support.

“That is enormously important to me, not just from a political point of view, but from a values point of view,” said Patrick.

DeFranco, though, has already displayed grassroots support of her own.

She was able to get the 10,000 voter signatures required by the state to get on the September primary ballot.