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The death of Senator Edward Kennedy means Democrats have lost one of their strongest lawmakers. It also means a Senate seat is vacant in Massachusetts, and that state is expecting a scramble to fill it. Massachusetts law calls for a special election next January, and as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, there will likely be no shortage of candidates.
TOVIA SMITH: It was something no one dared mention aloud while the senator was sick. Kennedy himself broke the ice when he brought up his succession earlier this month and the whispers came out of the shadows just a bit. But still, anyone who might be hoping to succeed the senator has to be most concerned right now with being sensitive to the moment.
Representative EDWARD MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I think that the only focus for the next week should be on Senator Kennedy, on his incredible contributions to our state.
SMITH: Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey is one of many mentioned as contenders, who are now keeping mum. Others range from Republicans like former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, to a long list of Democrats, starting with Senator Kennedy's nephew, former Congressman Joe Kennedy, and the senator's widow Vicki Kennedy, who's reportedly not interested. Congressman Barney Frank says neither is he, but not ruling it out are former Congressman Marty Meehan and incumbents Steven Lynch and Michael Capuano, who like most, just won't go there right now.
Representative MICHAEL CAPUANO (Democrat, Massachusetts): Out of respect for the senator and everything he has done for this commonwealth, I think it's appropriate that anyone who might be thinking of themselves at the moment keep their mouth shut, and let's celebrate his life first.
Mr. TODD DOMKE (Republican Political Consultant): I think we're going to have to wait at least a few days, if not a week or so, before some of those candidates admit their own ambition.
SMITH: Todd Domke, a Republican political consultant, says any would-be candidates will now face a very delicate dance.
Mr. DOMKE: No one's going to want to be the first to jump into the water. Candidates will, in fact, want to seem drafted, even if behind the scenes they're lining up support.
SMITH: But there is parole in delay, as well. Massachusetts hasn't seen an open Senate seat in 25 years, and University of Massachusetts Professor Paul Watanabe says there is a lot of pent-up ambition.
Professor PAUL WATANABE (Political Science, University of Massachusetts): There's a long line of people backed up ready to at least consider stepping into one of these, you know, rare and cherished positions. And after the decent interval has passed, I fully expect the mad scramble to occur.
SMITH: With a special election now just five months away, Watanabe says candidates cannot afford to be too sensitive.
Prof. WATANABE: In this case, he or she who hesitates is lost, because so much of the support and, again, the money gets gobbled up very quickly.
SMITH: It was one of Senator Kennedy's last wishes, that his seat not sit empty leading up to a special election. Earlier this month, he asked lawmakers to change the law so the governor could appoint a temporary replacement, but Republicans are crying foul. It was just five years ago that Democratic lawmakers changed the law the other way. When it looked like John Kerry might win the presidency, Democrats didn't want Republican Governor Mitt Romney appointing a replacement, so they took that power away and set up the special election process. Now Republicans say Democrats should have to live with that.
Representative BRADLEY JONES (Republican, Massachusetts): You know, there's an old saying, you know, you make your bed, you lie in it. I didn't want the law the way it is today in the books, but I think we have to respect that law.
SMITH: Massachusetts House Minority Leader Bradley Jones says trying to change the law again is the worst kind of political expediency.
Rep. JONES: It's, I think, reprehensible. It's hypocritical, and quite frankly, I think it's going to bring shame on all of us.
SMITH: While many Democrats have been non-committal on the idea, Governor Deval Patrick says he's for it, and he dismisses suggestions it's hypocritical to do now what Democrats opposed in the past.
Governor DEVAL PATRICK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Well, I wasn't here. I just got here, as you know, and I think Massachusetts ought to have two voices in the Senate, being a part of some of the key debates of our time.
SMITH: Ultimately, with Democrats in the majority, the governor may very well get the power to make the interim appointment. There is significant will to oblige Senator Kennedy's wishes. As another Democrat put it, it's bad enough he didn't get to see the nation's health care system overhauled. But it would add insult to injury if the plan failed because it needed just one more vote and Senator Kennedy's seat was empty.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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