Further comments on Senator Kennedy’s Succession

Thanks to all who have weighed in on this issue at this website or by e-mail.   All together, I’ve received roughly 100 comments on the issue (about half on the site and half by e-mail).

You have greatly contributed to my understanding.  Click here for a post that I made to the Belmont Citizen Herald.

The full text of the BCH post appears below:

As the Commonwealth mourns the loss of its senior statesman, the conversation that he initiated about the procedure for his succession must pause respectfully, but it will necessarily soon resume.

No other issue has drawn more comments on my Web site, willbrownsberger.com. The very diverse comments have helped clarify for me what the competing considerations are.

Sen. Ted Kennedy proposed that the governor appoint a caretaker while a special election is held to see who will complete his term. He explicitly suggested that the caretaker commit not to be a candidate for the seat. The senator did not propose that the people be deprived of a choice, only that there be a caretaker in place while the people are making their choice.

In 2004, the Legislature denied Gov. Mitt Romney the ability to make an appointment in case Sen. John Kerry became President. A great many, across the political spectrum, are uncomfortable with the idea that we would change the rules for political reasons. For many, the proposal seems basically unethical, like moving the goal posts in football.

On the other hand, the system that the senator proposed is basically reasonable. Some have argued that the political move was made in 2004 and the fact that a political move was made then should not prevent us from adopting a reasonable approach now.

Still others have taken the view, in effect, that “all is fair in love and war” and there are matters of great importance before the Senate — health care reform and fossil fuel controls. Given the transcendent significance of these issues for our future and the close balance in the Senate, they argue, we should not deprive the President of a vote for progress. Clearly, the caretaker will not have time to do anything but cast a few votes — he or she won’t really have time to pick up steam as an advocate for Massachusetts.

People have raised some important questions, notably:

Is it really true that the future of health care reform and the climate legislation will turn on one vote that must be cast while the seat is vacant?

Can we really assure that the caretaker will not become a candidate with an unfair head start — either in the present or a future election? If not, will unhealthy politics be too likely to infect the gubernatorial appointment process.

The choice is upon us urgently now with the senator’s passing. While I am still listening to the conversation and considering the issue, I do feel that at the state level and nationally, there is no higher priority than restoring trust in government — lost trust reduces our ability to meet our great challenges, which certainly do include health care cost control and ending dependence on fossil fuels. Neither of those issues will be solved by one piece of legislation — they both will require sustained leadership over the next few decades and we should be very reluctant to do anything that will further undermine our ability to lead.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

10 replies on “Further comments on Senator Kennedy’s Succession”

  1. Hi Will

    Just thought I’d share my thoughts on this point since it’s suddenly become more important.

    It is a blatantly political move to some extent to reverse the 2004 position. But so what? The legislature is a political body to begin with. It is entitled to, and indeed must, make political moves that will put into effect the will of the people.

    I don’t see any flip-flop at all. The will of the people is the same as it has always been: to have a particular type of senator represent us. The only change is the means to that end. Our legislators chose one means in 2004, but if the legislators don’t think it will work today, there is no reason not to change it. It is the courts that are bound by precedent, not the legislators.


  2. Will,
    I read your piece, which was thoughtful as always, and I can’t disagree with your conclusion that restoring trust in government deserves high priority. That said, it’s important for you to distinguish between comments from people who want good government and actually believe that it can exist and people who will never have anything good to say about government, regardless of how good a job it does. A certain portion of the comments I’ve read on your web site and at the C-H site are from mistrustful, negative people, who will always be quick to share their views that politicians are crooks, taxes bad, and the system broken. I think that whatever conclusion you come to will be defensible, and I trust that it will be well thought out. Please just don’t give more weight to the voices of knee-jerk anti-government folk than you do to those who support good government year in and year out. Personally, I continue to believe that a change in the law that couples short-term appointment with relatively speedy election (preferably keeping the caretaker from participating in the election) is a reasonable change and perhaps the form that should have been adopted back in 2004. –Helen

  3. If it is basically reasonable to have a caretaker senator, then do not be cowed by the loud voices howling about changing the law.

    Nothing could do more to boost trust in our government than for the people of America to elect a President for the purpose of establishing universal health care coverage, and then have that government deliver universal health care.

    The people who dry clean your suits, drive your taxis, deliver your pizzas, etc. deserve to be able to go to a clinic without worrying about whether it will bankrupt them.

  4. Why not write the law that the caretaker must be of the same party as the elected Senator? That way the governor’s choice would be more likely to reflect what the majority voted for–you wouldn’t have Mitt Romney, say, replacing John Kerry with Kerry Healey.

  5. We need an interim US senator to represent Massachusetts as soon as possible. Having special elections instead of a gubernatorial appointment is right, on principle. An interim senator is also needed, on principle, and the 2004 law should have let Romney appoint one. Let’s let common sense prevail.

  6. Would this be a issue if Kerry Haeley had won the Governers office?

    Trust in this Legislature has been lost for a LONG time now. And this is just another example of changing laws to suit themselves.

  7. Will,

    The 2004 change in law should have included a provision for an interim appointment by the Governor prior to the special election. That provision should be added now. There is no legitimate reason for the seat to be vacant for five months.



  8. Hi Will,

    I was going to post when I had made up my mind on the question, but that hasn’t happened yet and the clock is ticking, so posting my thoughts seemed like the next best thing.

    It seems to me three principles are being invoked in the discussion, all with merit:
    – The people of Massachusetts should not be deprived of representation, especially in critical times
    – The people should be represented by someone they elect, not someone appointed for them
    – Laws should not be changed lightly – and here I would respectfully disagree with Tino that precedent should apply only to judicial situations

    Now I don’t think for a minute that either of the first two principles was as central to the decision-making in 2004 as, say, calculation of political advantage, and I doubt that any of them are really key to the Beacon Hill debate now. But I do believe that principle does have a place, even in Massachusetts politics, and the one that I keep coming back to is the third because it bears on what you rightly identify as a key issue: public trust in the legislative process.

    Let’s grant that the 2004 change in the law was a naked power play, without a shred of principal. It’s still the law. Obviously, laws should change when circumstances change, but the only objective circumstance that seems to have changed is the sitting governor’s political affiliation. And laws should change when they are shown to be bad law – but we haven’t had any bad experiences with interim senators since 2004. So changing the law looks like what I’m afraid it really is at heart: partisan politics.

    That said, who wants health care to lose by one vote? (Well, lots of people, but not me, and I suspect not you.)

    Perhaps the best solution would be for the Democratic legislative leadership to say “We made bad law for bad reasons in 2004. We’re now proposing good law for bad reasons in 2009. If you want to beat us up for that, go ahead. Like Senator Kennedy we’re flawed humans trying to do something good.”

    Or words to that effect.


  9. I have held my tongue on this subject until now, but changed my mind after reading about the current proposal in today’s Boston Globe.

    Honestly I always felt that it made sense for the Governor to appoint an interim Senator and was angry about the cynical rejection of that idea by the Democratic majority in the Legislature in 2004 for transparently political reasons. So it’s hard for me to oppose the idea now, though I am as unhappy as before that the reasons for the change of heart of many legislators seem to be just as transparently political as the last time.

    But the thing that made me laugh out loud today when I read it in the Boston Globe is that the proposal currently being presented to the Legislature requires *that the temporarily appointed Senator be from the same party as the Senator who is being replaced*!! Since there is obviously no need for such a provision at present, the leadership seems to be calculating that in a future situation there is more chance of a Democratic Senator than of a Democratic Governor, a view that would certainly be consistent with recent history.

    It is hard to see this provision in any other light than as another transparently political power play by the current Legislative leadership. Does any other state where a Governor appoints an interim Senator have such a provision?? I sure hope Will and our other legislators will make the removal of this provision a condition for their support. Let’s pass a law this time that’s written to stand the test of time.


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