Thursday, September 24, 2009

Introducing the Junior Senator From Massachusetts

Massachusetts Governor Patrick today named Boston attorney Paul Kirk, 71, the former chairman of the DNC to take over Kennedy's seat in the Senate. The Massachusetts legislature changed the law to give the power of filling a Senate vacancy to the governor. This is a power the governor once had, but the legislature removed it in 2004, when the Democrats did not want the Republican governor Mitt Romney to fill a potential Senate seat in case John Kerry was elected president. They have now changed the law back to allow this appointment (I imagine if Massachusetts ever elects another Republican governor, a Democrat legislature would change the law again).

What may have led to Kirk's appointment was some pressure on his behalf by Kennedy's widow Vicki and two sons, Edward Jr. and Rep. Patrick Kennedy. His ties to Kennedy go back to 1969, when he started working for the senator on Capitol Hill. He became chairman of the DNC in 1985. He then co-chaired the Commission on Presidential Debates with former RNC chair Frank Fahrenkopf. Kirk is now chairman of the JFK Library in Boston.

Kirk has also been named as the executor of Kennedy's will. In a four-page will filed in Barnstable Probate Court on today, Kennedy named his longtime friend Paul Kirk as executor. The will was signed by Kennedy on Aug. 25, 2006 — exactly three years before he died.

Kirk said today he would not seek election to the seat. He will be sworn into office tomorrow. In a statement, President Obama called Kirk a "distinguished leader, whose long collaboration with Senator Kennedy makes him an excellent, interim choice to carry on his work until the voters make their choice in January."

Kirk is a registered lobbyist. Because of his new position he would be banned from lobbying activities for two years after his term ends. He has lobbied for the pharmaceutical industry and has deep ties to special interests, having sat on a board that oversees a health-insurance provider.

"Obviously, this is a conflict of interest and raises serious concerns," Craig Holman of the non-partisan watchdog Public Citizen, said of the potential appointment of Paul G. Kirk Jr. to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s seat. "It is distressing. There were many qualified people."

Kirk, 71, retired and living on Cape Cod, raked in $250,942 in salary and stock options as a board member for Hartford Financial Services, the umbrella for The Hartford, which sells health coverage to retirees. “Why in the world would they choose someone who has close ties to the insurance industry?” asked Wendell Potter, a former health insurance exec-turned-whistleblower. He noted the health insurance industry has much to gain in the current reform package, especially if coverage is mandated without competition from a government insurance option, as a bill now before the Senate finance committee proposes.

It will be very interesting to see how this appointment affects the health insurance reform debate that is happening in Congress. Stay tuned...