Kennedy Staffer to Replace Teddy?

According to most political sources in Massachusetts, Gov. DeVal Patrick will soon turn to one of the late Edward Kennedy’s closest political friends to fill his Senate seat until the special election January 19th.

Although nothing is official yet, signs are strong that Paul G. Kirk, Jr., who served on Kennedy’s Senate staff from 1969-77 and was Democratic National Chairman from 1985-89, could get appointment to the vacant Senate seat as by the end of this week.

Earlier this week, the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts legislature voted to change the state’s five-year-old law banning a gubernatorial appointment to a vacant Senate seat (enacted when Republican Mitt Romney occupied the governor’s chair). Almost immediately after the vote, speculation was rampant that Patrick would turn to former governor and 1988 Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis as the stopgap senator. Dukakis and the 71-year-old Kirk have reportedly submitted the papers the Gov. Patrick requested of potential appointees.

Both Dukakis and Kirk would be cinches to vote the left-of-center line that Kennedy did and, most importantly, provide the 60th Democratic vote in the Senate needed to stop any Republican-led filibusters against a health care plan that included public option.

But the most recent talk has been of Kirk rather than Dukakis largely because the Kennedy family has reportedly weighed in for the former DNC chief. Both the Boston Globe and CNN reported that the senator’s widow Vickie has expressed her preference for Kirk’s appointment. At remarks the memorial service for Kennedy at the JFK Library last month, nephew Joseph Kennedy singled out Kirk and noted that he had worked on Ted Kennedy’s first Senate race back in 1962.

When he made a bid for the national chairmanship of his party nearly a quarter-century ago, Kirk and his close association with Ted Kennedy caused some sleepless nights for centrist Democrats who wanted to move the party to the middle.  

As Texas Democratic Chairman Bob Slagle said at the time of Kirk and his supporters in the Kennedy family and Big Labor, “We don’t need their help and we don’t need their interference and we don’t need them slopping things over on us.”

Led by then-Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, party moderates in the Democratic Leadership Council (that included then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton) weighed in against Kirk and sought a “fresh face” to challenge Kirk for the party helm.  Their candidate turned out to be former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, who had made two losing runs for the presidential nomination.

The “Stop Kirk” movement consisted of westerners, southerners, and moderates in general who distrusted the Bay State man’s ties to Kennedy.  Bob Keefe, former DNC executive director and manager of moderate Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s (WA) 1976 presidential campaign, dropped his own bid for chairman and endorsed Sanford.

So, interestingly, did a liberal by the name of Nancy Pelosi, who was then state party chairman of California and had been endorsed by outgoing DNC head Charles Manatt.  

But it wasn’t enough to stop Kirk, who won the weighted votes of the DNC over Sanford by a margin of 203.07 to 153.93.  

As it turned out, Kirk was very open to the moderates and is remembered as a successful chairman.  He oversaw the Democratic Party’s dramatic comeback in the 1986 midterm elections in which Democrats recaptured the Senate after six years.  Even old foe Sanford was elected to the Senate from North Carolina.

Should Kirk get the appointment to replace Kennedy, don’t look for any complaints or criticism from party moderates that were heard in 1985.  There aren’t many of them left to complain about the Left “slopping things over on us.”