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Successor can wait

Dale McFeatters // Published August 25, 2009 in Scripps Howard News Service
Massachusetts should respectfully decline Sen. Ted Kennedy’s request that the state allow for the appointment, if his seat becomes vacant, of an interim senator before a special election is held some five months later for a replacement.

In a letter to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, Kennedy said that it was “vital” that the state have two senators rather than go five months with only one. Kennedy is gravely ill with brain cancer and mostly absent from the Senate.

It is no disrespect to the senator to see this as a desperation move to ensure that health-care reform, his signature issue and the pinnacle of his long Senate career, passes even if he’s not around. As it is, the Democrats are working with a dangerously thin margin on health care, with another long-serving senator, 91-year-old Robert Byrd of West Virginia, also increasingly absent.

Special elections are the most democratic way of filling vacancies, even though they favor those with strong ties to party organizations and funds. The tradeoff is that the seat goes vacant until the election is held. However, states can muddle through as Minnesota did for eight months before Sen. Al Franken finally took the oath in July.

The process of a governor naming a Senate replacement is also under something of a cloud. In January, then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, after seeming to try to sell Barack Obama’s old seat, named almost as an act of spite a perennially failed candidate. And New York Gov. David Paterson held a bizarre series of auditions for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s seat before passing over Caroline Kennedy to name an obscure second-term member of the House.

Two other appointees are serving in the Senate: Ted Kaufman of Delaware, Joe Biden’s former chief of staff and widely believed to be a placeholder until Biden’s son can run in 2010, and Michael Bennet of Colorado, named to fill the vacancy when Ken Salazar became Interior secretary and very likely to run in his own right.

And soon there will be two more appointees: the replacements for Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida, who is retiring early, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is returning to Texas to run for governor.

The research group FairVote says with those six appointees in place, almost 27 percent of the country will be represented by at least one unelected U.S. senator. Massachusetts should stick with its special election and hope one’s not needed.