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scot lehigh

In replacing Kerry: Take special care to be fair

With John Kerry about to be nominated for secretary of state, the Massachusetts political world is abuzz with intrigue, much of which focuses on this question: How can the majority Democrats best connive to keep his Senate seat?

Some activists would like to change the law so that Governor Deval Patrick could appoint a replacement for the entire two years left in Kerry’s term, rather than hold a special election in late spring. After all, specials, with their lower voter turnout, have proved a problem for Democrats.

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A problem by the name of Scott Brown. Brown won the 2010 special election to fill the vacancy created by Ted Kennedy’s death — and now, Democrats fear, the recently defeated Republican could bounce back into the Senate in the special to fill Kerry’s seat.

But would changing the law again be fair to Republicans, let alone voters?

“Fair? Who says politics is fair?” snorts one veteran Democratic activist who favors such a change. “Where is that written?”

Fortunately, Democratic policymakers appear to have little appetite for those kind of shenanigans.

The real question at play is whether Patrick will appoint a caretaker who promises not to seek the office, or fill it with someone who will then campaign to be elected in his or her own right.

Patrick should appoint an interim senator who pledges not to run for the job.

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Patrick took the former course when Kennedy died, appointing Paul Kirk, who had no designs on the seat, as an interim senator. Although Patrick has said he “expects” to do the same this time around, the governor has noted that he’s “not ruling out other options.”

Some Democrats are adamant that he should appoint someone who will run for the seat. Their thinking: Holding the post could help that person clear the primary field of serious intra-party rivals and put the interim senator on better footing to plan, finance, and wage a general election campaign against Brown or even Bill Weld, who hasn’t ruled out a candidacy. (As a side note, when I wrote about a possible Weld candidacy last week, a number of readers e-mailed to say the former Republican governor should run as an independent, a la Angus King in Maine. Interesting idea, that.)

So what should Patrick do? He should steer by the star of what’s best for the state — and that means appointing an interim senator who pledges not to run for the job. That would annoy some in his own party, who warn that appointing a non-candidate caretaker would set the stage for a fractious primary that would, in turn, leave the eventual winner bruised, broke, and at a distinct disadvantage against Brown or Weld in the five- to six-week sprint to the general election.

That is certainly possible, though one can also argue that what’s fair to the Republicans is also best for the Democrats.

Why? Well, the most noteworthy Democrat said to be interested in a candidacy is Ted Kennedy Jr. But as the son of the former senator and a current resident of Connecticut, Kennedy would need to win the seat on his own. Any hint of a deliberately conferred political advantage would foster accusations of entitlement and spark voter resentment.

After Kennedy, the four most mentioned potential candidates are Ed Markey, Mike Capuano, Bill Keating, and Steve Lynch. It’s easy to imagine any of them running in a special, in no small part because there’s no real risk in doing so; lose and you still have your House seat. Contrariwise, accepting a Senate appointment would mean resigning that House seat — and it’s hard to envision any of those risk-averse pols taking that leap.

But either way, the hindrance or help would result from the vicissitudes of this particular campaign. It wouldn’t be an intentional advantage imparted through a deliberate effort by the governor to tilt the playing field in the Democrats’ favor.

And if Weld or Brown emerges as the next US senator from Massachusetts because of those vagaries? Well, hard as that may be for Democrats to contemplate, that’s democracy, folks.

All of which is to say, Patrick’s responsibility here transcends his party. By appointing a caretaker and letting the chips fall where they may, he will be able to say that he chose the fairest path. In doing so, he’d be living up to his word that he’s not just a Democratic leader, but rather governor of the entire state.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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