Fighting for a Seat

BOSTON, March 10, 2005 — The Democratic race for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the election of President John F. Kerry erupted in a volley of sharp elbows last night as the six candidates faced off in their final pre-primary encounter.

The debate opened calmly, with the participants taking similar positions on most issues. An exception was Ninth District Congressman Steven Lynch, who stressed his status as the only candidate opposed to abortion and in favor of funding for the war in Iraq. Halfway through the debate, Lynch, a former ironworker who grew up in a South Boston housing project, gestured dismissively at the rest of the candidates. “Our Republican opponent will eat our lunch if we go with yet another rich liberal clone,” he said in a reference to presumptive GOP nominee Ralph Martin, the former Suffolk County district attorney. “The last time one of them got dirt under their fingernails was when the paperboy accidentally threw their Washington Post into the compost heap.”

That drew a pointed rebuttal from Fourth District Congressman Barney Frank of Newton. “Steve, judging from that expensive suit, it's been a long time since you've had a hard hat on your head,” Frank snapped. “Maybe you wore it a couple of sizes too tight back then, because if you think Democrats can win by acting like Republicans, you're a few washers short of a waterproof seal.”

Fifth District Congressman Marty Meehan of Lowell jumped to Lynch's defense, evoking Frank's 1990 reprimand by the House for ethics violations that included arranging the dismissal of parking citations accumulated by a gay lover. “Barney, you of all people should not be criticizing Steve,” chided Meehan. “I'd ticket you for a cheap shot if I thought you'd take it seriously instead of just getting it fixed.”

“Look who's talking!” snapped Congressman Ed Markey of Malden. “Marty, you've talked a big game about money corrupting politics even as you're raising more of it than any of us. For the sake of keeping the birthrate down, I'm glad you're not out there preaching chastity.” The audience packed into Faneuil Hall burst into cheers, boos, and laughter. Former State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, the 2002 Democratic nominee for governor and the lone woman in the Senate race, raised her arms in an appeal for calm. “Boys, boys, boys,” she said, shaking her head ruefully. “You're the best argument yet for why we need adult female supervision in Washington.”

“Shana's right,” said Boston Mayor Tom Menino, according to an official transcript. “We gawta hang togetha, or else we'll pull a pot.”

Contacted later, Martin, who is running uncontested in next week's Republican primary, said he and campaign aides thoroughly enjoyed the contentious forum. Exclaimed Martin: “Can they do a couple more before primary day?”

Fantasy? Perhaps. A Kerry victory over George W. Bush this fall is hardly a lock. But since the moment he emerged as the likely Democratic nominee, local pols have been salivating over the prospect of something not seen around here in two decades: an open U.S. Senate seat. Anticipation has been heightened by an effort to strip Republican Governor Mitt Romney of his legal right to appoint a successor to Kerry. Instead, Beacon Hill insiders have crafted a bill that would require a special election to fill the Senate vacancy, with the winner holding the seat until Kerry's term expires in 2006.

The entertainment has already begun. Romney has denounced the bill as “a transparent power grab.” But emboldened by polls that show 68 percent support for a special election to choose Kerry's successor, Democrats are plotting to warm up the winter of 2005 with what could be one of the most spectacular free-for-alls in Massachusetts political history. Underline the word free: Because the special election would not coincide with the regular election cycle, no incumbent would have to give up his or her seat to take a shot at one of the most coveted prizes in politics.

Notes political analyst Peter Meade: “It'll be more fun than Halloween.”

But who will the trick-or-treaters be, what costumes will they sport, and who's likely to bring home the most KitKats?

Despite uncertainty over the details of a special election, or even if it will happen, several members of the state's congressional delegation have been candid about their appetite for the fight. “I am going to be ready to run for the Senate on November 3,” says Markey, the delegation's senior member. It's “a rare and historic opportunity,” Lynch told an interviewer days after grinning and nodding his way through several references to his senatorial ambitions at the annual South Boston St. Patrick's Day breakfast.

Meehan tries to deflect the question. “John Kerry needs to win the presidency, and that's what I'm focused on,” he says. Translation: If Kerry's in, so am I. (A fifth member of the delegation who has shown interest in the race, Tenth District Congressman Bill Delahunt of Quincy, is considered unlikely to run by insiders who question his enthusiasm for such a brief, intense contest. “He'd have to work past noon,” sneers one party leader.)

Frank, Lynch, Markey, and Meehan are considered frontrunners because they enjoy support in areas with the largest numbers of voters, and because they could tap into their campaign funds, while state officeholders are barred from applying their cash on hand to a federal race. Still, the congressmen might have company. Among the names being discussed is that of the most formidable non-incumbent, former Eighth District Representative Joe Kennedy, who left Congress in 1998. But Kennedy is said by family friends like Peter Meade to be “enjoying himself way too much” as a private-sector entrepreneur to consider a return to Washington. Beacon Hill multimillionaire Chris Gabrieli, the party's 2002 nominee for lieutenant governor, and printing magnate Steve Grossman, a former party chair and failed 2002 candidate for governor, would have the necessary dough to run. But Gabrieli is a two-time electoral loser, having also failed in a 1998 bid for Congress, and Grossman alienated much of the Massachusetts political establishment when he backed Howard Dean over Kerry in the primaries. “You get close to the sun, you get burned,” notes veteran Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman.

Menino has statewide name recognition and a strong political organization. For now, however, he's disclaiming interest. “Are you crazy? Get outta here,” the mayor says. And whenever a crowd of guys in suits queues up for a race, as they did in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, it offers hope for an experienced female candidate who has kept her Rolodex up to date. “I certainly at some point have an interest in getting involved in public service, but I'm happy doing what I'm doing,” says 2002 Democratic candidate for governor Shannon O'Brien, now a consumer reporter on WB56's Ten O'Clock News (where — in the interest of full disclosure — your faithful correspondent also works).

Unexpected entries aside, a field of Frank, Lynch, Markey, Meehan, Menino, and O'Brien would offer a parade to rival the most exotic Halloween night. The delegation's lone openly gay member, Frank “could generate that liberal, Democratic-primary-type enthusiasm,” one of his House colleagues says. But he does have baggage, as our mythical debate points out. There's speculation he'd defer to his friend Markey, who brings to the table seniority, money, and backing from labor, environmental, and business groups. Yet Markey's strength as an inside-the-Beltway player could also be a weakness. “He's so distant from our state, he doesn't even live here,” a Boston-based Democratic operative says of Markey, who lives in Maryland and keeps a voting address at his childhood home in Malden. “It's true of Frank also. Where's his life?”

That could provide an opening for the more locally visible likes of Meehan and Lynch, seen by insiders as more aggressive and battle-ready than Frank or Markey. “Lynch has balls, and that's what you need in this kind of race,” one activist says. Meehan is the prototypical suburban pol, insiders say, carving out a name on issues that appeal to the two-car garage crowd — such as campaign-finance reform and the war on tobacco — but also able to pull votes in urban areas like Lowell. Lynch is the flip side, a street fighter with the social conservatism to draw an older urban vote, yet fresh and slick enough to appeal to younger middle-class suburbanites.

Even if they manage to pick de-facto appointment power out of Romney's pocket, the Democrats face a formidable hurdle: former DA Ralph Martin. Martin declines to comment, but Boston magazine has learned that representatives of Romney have contacted him about his interest in Kerry's seat. “He is as articulate as anybody, and he could be above the fray,” says Meade.

Ah, the fray. Even local political junkies left cold by the prospect of a Kerry victory are salivating at the thought of a showdown for his seat and echoing Lynch's mock exhortation at that breakfast on St. Patrick's Day: “Go, John, go. Please, God, just go!”