Vicki Kennedy and Senator Scott Brown – representatives of the old and new guard in Massachusetts politics – reached an impasse in an escalating battle of wills Tuesday, all but dooming a high-profile US Senate debate in the fall.
The struggle between the two, who have had a tumultuous relationship, has become a sidebar drama in the Senate race between Brown, a Republican, and Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat and Harvard Law School professor.
In the latest skirmish, Brown said he would not participate in a debate at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in September, after Kennedy said she would not agree to his condition that she remain neutral in the race.
Brown had argued that Vicki Kennedy, Senator Kennedy’s widow and the president of the institute’s board, needed to remain on the sidelines to ensure that the debate would be seen as fair and nonpartisan.
But in a letter to Brown and Warren signed by a Kennedy Institute official and an official at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a cosponsor of the debate, Kennedy made clear she would not relinquish her right to endorse in the race.
“Given the goodwill and understanding of the nonpartisan mission of the institute that Senator Brown has thus far shown, it seems inconsistent that he would now attempt to restrict the activities of Mrs. Kennedy as a condition of accepting a debate that is co-sponsored by an organization with which she is affiliated,” wrote Lisa McBirney, the institute’s chief operating officer and Christopher Hogan, the chief of staff in the university chancellor’s office.
“This nonendorsement pledge is unprecedented and is not being required of any other persons or entities,” they wrote. “To us, such a pledge seems inappropriate when a nonmedia sponsor issues a debate invitation. We can assure both campaigns that the debate will be fair, just as the one we cosponsored between Senator Brown and Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2010 was fair.”
The letter pointed out that debates are often sponsored by newspapers, such as The Boston Globe and The Des Moines Register, which endorse candidates.
An hour after Kennedy released her letter, Brown’s campaign issued a statement saying he would not participate in the debate.
“We respect Vicki Kennedy’s decision, but we regret that we cannot accept a debate invitation from someone who plans to endorse Scott Brown’s opponent,” said the statement, from Brown’s campaign manager, Jim Barnett. “The Kennedy Institute cannot hold itself out as a nonpartisan debate sponsor while the president of its board of trustees gets involved in the race on behalf of one of the candidates.”
Brown had also asked that the debate be sponsored by local news organizations, not MSNBC, which had been mentioned in Kennedy’s initial invitation as a possible broadcast partner. The Kennedy institute said it would be willing to agree to that concession. But that point now seems moot.
Brown did not raise any objections when he participated in a debate sponsored by the Kennedy Institute in 2010, held five days after Vicki Kennedy endorsed Brown’s Democratic opponent, Coakley.
It was in that debate, at UMass Boston, that Brown famously rebranded Edward Kennedy’s seat the “People’s Seat.”
In this campaign, Brown and Warren have agreed to attend a WBZ-TV debate in Boston and one sponsored by a media consortium in Western Massachusetts. Warren has also accepted a debate proposed by a Boston media consortium, while Brown has accepted two Boston-area radio debate invitations.
‘We respect Vicki Kennedy’s decision, but we regret that we cannot accept a debate invitation from someone who plans to endorse Scott Brown’s opponent.’
Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University journalism professor who has studied the history of presidential debates, said Brown’s decision to reject Kennedy’s debate invitation undercuts the image he is trying to build.
“They’re making such an effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it,” he said.
Bob Maginn, chairman of the state Republican Party, applauded Brown for rejecting the debate offer.
“Scott Brown is right to reject this charade of a debate,” he said in a statement. “By demanding neutrality from the sponsors, he called the Warren campaign and the Kennedy Institute’s bluff and exposed this invitation for what it was: a setup.”
The Warren campaign declined to comment.Michael Levenson
can be reached at
him on Twitter @mlevenson.