Former top aide to Ted Kennedy and a one-time chairman of the Democratic National Committee Paul Kirk has been named by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to serve as the interim replacement for Kennedy in Massachusetts' Senate delegation, following the death of Senator Kennedy on August 25th.
Kirk served as a special assistant to Kennedy from 1969 to 1977. In 1983, he was elected treasurer of the DNC, and became chairman of the organization in 1985. His stewardship of the national party saw Democrats retake control of the Senate in the 1986 midterm elections, following six years of Repulican majority. He left his DNC post in 1988 following the defeat of Michael Dukakis in a presidential election that saw George H.W. Bush win in a landslide.
Kirk's election to the top job at the DNC was marked by some controversy. Kirk, a Massachusetts native and unabashed liberal (not unlike Kennedy), roused concern in several southern Democrats, including Senator Chuck Robb of Virginia and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. They went on to form the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which would later be chaired in the early 1990s by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
The appointment of Kirk was largely expected over the past few days, though early speculation indicated that former Massachusetts Governor and Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was a front-runner for the position.
Kirk's appointment follows a legislative change for Massachusetts. In the final weeks of his life, Senator Kennedy- fearing that his death might deprive Democrats of an imperative vote in the health care reform fight- wrote a letter to Governor Patrick and the leaders of both chambers of the state legislature to urge them to pass a law that would allow the sitting governor- in the event of a vacancy- to appoint an interim Senator rather than allowing the seat to remain vacant until a special election could be held. That interim replacement would be barred from running in the special election.
The proposal was met with lukewarm support initially, primarily because it was seen by many to directly refute the purpose of a previous bill passed in 2004- when it was possible that the election of Massachusetts' other Senator, John Kerry, might give then-Republican Governor Mitt Romney the ability to choose a fellow GOPer to fill the seat. The legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill, claiming that it was more democratic for direct election than to simply permit a Governor to choose a new Senator with whom the state would be stuck for up to two years.
Kennedy argued that this change didn't violate the spirit of the 2004 legislation, but rather that it simply added to it. The electorate still chooses its permanent Senator, but avoids a period of under-representation during the spell between the vacancy and the special election.
The Massachusetts state House of Representatives passed the bill last Thursday, and the Senate completed its own bill earlier this week, with Governor Patrick promptly signing the bill into law.
Kirk provides a perfect outlet for national Democrats. With no long-term political career plans of his own, Senator-designate Kirk will likely vote the same way Kennedy would have if he were still on the floor today.