The line on succession

As speculation continues to mount on who will run in a special election to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, little attention is being paid to who might succeed the successor if he — or she — hails from the rolls of elected officials.

The usual suspects are being trotted out by consensus and, outside of the Kennedy family and all Republicans, most of those being mentioned have day jobs they were elected to by the voters of Massachusetts. There's also the possibility that a number of so-far-unnamed elected figures who would not normally jump into the fray could be tempted to throw caution to the wind for the once-in-a-lifetime chance at a seat that comes at no threat to their current post. And should any of them win, the replacement process is as varied as the post that will need to be filled.

Take Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose name appears on every speculative ballot. If Coakley wins the seat, according to statute, her first assistant attorney general, David Friedman, becomes acting attorney general until the next election. Friedman has never held elective office, but his resume includes a stint as chief of staff for former state Senate President Robert Travaglini and as law clerk for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. As a private attorney, Friedman successfully sued the state in federal court on behalf of 3,000 mentally ill citizens on a waiting list for services. The class action suit forced the state to add $100 million annually for services.

If the victor hails from Congress — with the likes of Stephen Lynch, Michael Capuano, Edward Markey, James McGovern, and William Delahunt all reportedly weighing their options — the waters become more muddied. When the Legislature made the infamous change to the law in 2004 that took away the ability of the governor to appoint someone to a vacant U.S. Senate seat, lawmakers applied the same rules to the US House. If the push to give Gov. Deval Patrick the power to appoint a temporary senator succeeds, it is likely that provision will apply to the House as well.

But the law also says if the vacancy occurs before February 1 of an even-numbered year (read: election year) then the governor must call for a special election for that seat. That's where the timing of a special senate election could really play havoc.

As of now, if the election to replace Kennedy is held at its earliest possible date (in mid-January) and the victor hails from the congressional ranks, Patrick would have to call for an election for sometime in July to fill a seat that will be up for grabs in the fall anyway.

And with estimates projecting that Massachusetts will lose one of its 10 congressional seats after the 2010 census, it's very likely the mandated legislative redistricting will kill that seat in order to avoid pitting two congressmen with more seniority against one another. Who would run for that seat?

Some baseball insiders are speculating that the unprecedented opening of a Senate seat in an off-election year could prompt a no-risk candidacy by other officeholders who may not otherwise want to lose their safety net. One of those could be state Treasurer Tim Cahill, whose disaffection with the state Democratic party has moved him to go independent and scrub the big D from his voter registration. Cahill, who says he changed from unenrolled to Democrat so he could vote for Kennedy in the 1980 presidential primary, could be a wild card if he decides the three-way battle for governor is not for him. A Senate seat could satiate his ambitions, which far outstretch his current office.

If Cahill were to win his successor as treasurer would ironically be in the hands of his nemesis, Patrick. According to the state's General Laws, in the event of a vacancy, the governor "may designate the first deputy treasurer. . . to perform the duties of the office until the governor, with the advice and consent of the council, otherwise orders." In other words, first deputy treasurer Grace H. Lee could be appointed state treasurer or Patrick could install an ally.

Stephen Crosby, dean of the McCormack School at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said there may be nuances to why the line of succession varies for each state consitutional office.

"On the face of it, you’d say it does not make sense," says Crosby, who served two Republican governors as secretary of Administration and finance and chief of staff. "But something may be there where what would be appropriate for one may not be appropriate for another."

Nonetheless, Crosby said all the speculation is mother's milk to political observers and armchair pundits. He said the machinations in play right now to change the law for appointing a replacement may be a wise public policy decision, but it doesn't pass William Weld's infamous "smell test."

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

"The whole election business has become horribly politicized," Crosby says. "It’s got nothing to do with democracy, equity. It's just another manifestation of partisanism really corrupting the political process. There's not even a pretense anymore."

It is a game of political musical chairs amid a backdrop of political intrigue that Kennedy would have relished.