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Mass. Governor Sets Election Date for Kennedy Seat

August 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gov. Deval Patrick has set the date for a special election to finish out Edward M. Kennedy's term in the Senate. Two Massachusetts lawmakers debate the decision.
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JIM LEHRER: And next tonight: filling Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat.

Earlier today, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick set a January 19, 2010, date for a special election. He also said he supports a proposal that would allow him to make a temporary appointment.

GOV. DEVAL PATRICK, D-Mass.: I wholly support the special election and the democratic process to fill the remaining two years of Senator Kennedy’s term.

But I will continue to work with the legislature on legislation authorizing an interim appointment to the United States Senate for the five months, until that special election happens. This is the only way to ensure that Massachusetts is fully represented until the voters of the state elect our next senator in January.

JIM LEHRER: The governor also said Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, was not interested in the interim position.

Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: As Massachusetts law now stands, Senator Kennedy’s death leaves Senate Democrats shy of their 60-seat filibuster-proof majority until the special election in January at least.

That could affect votes on key issues, like health care and climate change. Kennedy himself recognized the potential ramifications. In a recent letter to the governor and legislature, Kennedy urged state law be amended to allow an interim appointment until the special election occurs.

Some Republicans are crying foul, noting it was Democrats who eliminated the governor’s Senate vacancy appointment power in 2004 to prevent then-Republican Governor Mitt Romney from naming a successor if Democratic Senator John Kerry were elected president.

To debate all this, I’m joined now by two members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Republican George Peterson Jr., the assistant minority leader, and Democrat Robert Koczera. He introduced a bill in January to let the governor appoint an interim senator.

Welcome to you both.

Representative Koczera, the governor’s proposal is not identical to yours, but it’s close. Tell me, how would it work?

Interim appointment

Rep. Robert Koczera
Mass. State Representative
I think the concern here is that we don't want the governor, whoever the governor may be of whatever party, unduly influencing the choice of the people in the special election.

STATE REP. ROBERT KOCZERA, D-Mass.: Well, thank you. Thank you for inviting me on the program.

Basically, the legislation that I am proposing would enable the governor to appoint someone to fill the vacancy on an interim basis, pending the election of a -- of a special election of a -- of a senator.

However, the governor would not be empowered to make this appointment until the filing deadline has passed for candidates in the special elections. Furthermore, he would be prohibited from being able to appoint any of the declared candidates for the -- for the seat. And that person would serve until the election has chosen a permanent replacement that would serve out -- in this case, the vacancy would be for three years of Senator Kennedy's term.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you're saying that now you have amended your own proposal, so that you would absolutely be sure that the appointee couldn't take advantage of having a leg up, and that is that the governor wouldn't even appoint anyone until after the filing deadline passed?

ROBERT KOCZERA: That's correct.

I think the concern here is that we don't want the governor, whoever the governor may be of whatever party, unduly influencing the choice of the people in the special election. We, indeed, want the seat to be filled, so that we do have two senators, two votes in the United States Senate in the course of the special election.

But the only fair way to do that is -- is to do it once the candidate field has been defined. And there are two deadlines in Massachusetts, one for party candidates, and the second for unenrolled candidates, or so-called independents that would only appear, in this case, on January 19.

Full representation

Rep. George Peterson
Mass. State Representative
Where were they the last six times they had the opportunity to vote for an interim replacement? They were against it.

MARGARET WARNER: Representative Peterson, that's the point that the governor made today, that Massachusetts needs full representation in the Senate during this four-and-a-half months, four-and-a-half, almost five months.

What's the problem with that, as far as the Republicans are concerned, or as far as you are concerned?

STATE REP. GEORGE PETERSON JR., R-Mass.: Well, I find it comical, really, that now my Democratic colleagues are on board with a temporary or interim appointment.

The -- my good friend and colleague Bob Koczera has voted six times against amendments either filed by the governor or my caucus to file and have an interim appointment. Six times, he's already voted against that idea.

So, this is coming to fruit and coming to bear right now because of the political situation in Washington, because of a terrible tragedy with Senator Kennedy. But where were they the last six times they had the opportunity to vote for an interim replacement? They were against it.

In fact, the bill or the current law that is in place was put in place at the behest and urging of Senator Kennedy himself back in 2004. It was Senator Kennedy that came to the House of Representatives, talked to the Democratic leadership, and said that we need a bill just in case Senator Kerry was going to be elected president.

And, at that time, all my Democratic colleagues went right along with it. If we had not changed that bill, that law at that point in time, we would not be debating a new bill to have temporary or an interim replacement.

Hypocritical proposal?

Rep. Robert Koczera
Mass. State Representative
What we debated in the Massachusetts General Court, our state legislature, five years ago was very different from what I am proposing now.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Representative Koczera, what do you say to that, that this looks pretty blatantly political, some have said hypocritical, on the part of the Democrats to completely flip position here, now that it suits the Democrats' purposes?

ROBERT KOCZERA: I was on the floor of the House and took those votes five years ago. And, quite clearly, there was discussion and concern that anyone that the governor would have appointed would have been able to be a candidate in the special election. And that was something that we did not want to see.

I support the concept of the special election, so that the people can decide who their senator will be for the remainder of the vacant Senate term.

And I would also go a step further to go and say that I support the proposal being put forth in Congress now by Senator Feingold to make all vacant -- vacancies in the Senate determined by special election.

However, I do support an interim appointment, pending that special election, providing there's a stipulation that says that the appointee could not be a candidate in that election, because that unduly advantages the person who is the appointee who is running for office.

What we debated in the Massachusetts General Court, our state legislature, five years ago was very different from what I am proposing now. Yes, it was an interim appointment, but the stipulations that the governor could make the appointment after the candidate field has been defined was not evident five years ago.

It is in my bill today. And I would hope that we would look upon this as being distinctly different, and, in that respect, responsive and -- to the public in terms of giving them the right to vote, but also giving the state representation in the United States Senate, as they're entitled to.

Republican opposition

Rep. George Peterson
Mass. State Representative
We are talking about changing a law in the middle of the game to suit political entities, to support politics in the Democratic House and in the Democratic Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: So -- so, Representative Peterson, since both the, your colleague's bill has a provision to prevent anyone from taking advantage of the situation as an appointee, and the governor said he would look also for a personal assurance, does that make you feel any more comfortable with the idea of an interim appointment?

GEORGE PETERSON JR.: Well, I have supported the interim appointment previous to this.

My good friend, again, voted against an amendment which would have precluded the appointee from running for office. And, in fact, as late as 2006, when we had filed a bill, the Republican Caucus, the chief sponsor John Lepper from Attleboro, and it came up to the House floor, and my good friend and 132 of his Democratic colleagues voted against that bill, which would have allowed for an interim appointment. And that individual would be precluded from running in the election.

MARGARET WARNER: So, but Representative Koczera -- I mean, Representative Peterson...

GEORGE PETERSON JR.: But they have a very short -- they -- they seem to have a very short memory.

MARGARET WARNER: ... let me just ask you about -- OK. But let me ask you about how you would intend to vote here, because the governor did call on Republicans -- there aren't a lot of you -- but to join in on this.

And you have, as you said, supported the interim appointment in the past. Would you support this?

GEORGE PETERSON JR.: At this, I would not -- at this point, I would not support it, for one simple reason. This is about political power politics.

We are talking about changing a law in the middle of the game to suit political entities, to support politics in the Democratic House and in the Democratic Congress. They have had the opportunity time and again to be able to change this law with the interim appointment, did not want to do it then. Now it is expedient, because of the issues of the day that are sitting in Washington.

And this -- because they can do it, because they have a supermajority here in Boston, they are probably going to do it. But I will not support the bill at this point in time.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. We will see what happens. The hearing is next week.

Representative Robert Koczera, and Representative George Peterson, thank you so much.

GEORGE PETERSON JR.: Thank you.

ROBERT KOCZERA: Thank you.