Wilson Sends Dukakis to DC?

Joe Wilson may have paved the way to send former Gov. Michael Dukakis to Washington—in time to vote for health-care reform from Ted Kennedy’s seat, influential Massachusetts Democrats tell The Daily Beast.

09.15.09 12:02 AM ET

Rep. Joe Wilson’s loss of self-control during President Barack Obama’s address to Congress could give Senate Democrats a crucial 60th vote as they try to block Republican filibusters this fall. Wilson’s outburst has moved Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature closer to fulfilling Senator Ted Kennedy’s dying wish—to change state law on how his empty seat would be filled. And that could well put Michael Dukakis in the Senate.

Massachusetts, now short one U.S. senator, is weighing whether to return power to the governor to appoint an interim senator until a special election is held in January. As Kennedy, an astute head counter, argued before his death in a letter to state legislative leaders, the change would give the state two votes on crucial Senate legislation over the next five months.

Thanks to Joe Wilson, South Carolina could send Dukakis to the Senate, where he could play a key role in reforming health care in ways that benefit millions of Americans.

So who will fill the coveted interim slot? Influential Democrats at the statehouse tell me that the front-runner is none other than Dukakis. He is a trim and fit 75 years old, has started and runs a public-policy program at Northeastern University, and remains—despite having lost a race a lot of people thought he could have won in 1988—a much-admired figure in Massachusetts. Last November, more than 1,000 friends and supporters paid from $2,500 to $100,000 to sponsor the launching of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern. He has national stature and is the policy wonk’s wonk, but his main qualification is being an A-list candidate who is willing to serve only five months. Filling Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat would be a capstone to his career.

The joke in Massachusetts is that if Dukakis were to get the Senate job, he’d ask two things: How come we’re not for single payer? And how do I get more money for Amtrak? His love of public transportation is so strong he’d probably take the train to Washington in September and arrive sometime in January.

Dukakis is still well-known and respected by many Democrats around the country. He is almost as passionate about universal health care as he is about mass transit. He would do more than show up in committee and on floor votes. He’d be engaged in the back and forth of revamping health-care policy. There’s nothing he loves more than the details of policy.

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As Dukakis’ media adviser from his comeback run for the governorship in 1982 to his nomination at the Democratic National Convention, I can attest that he is tough, smart, well-prepared, stubborn, and above all, his own man. And he knows about negative campaigns. Republicans are trying to turn Obama into a socialist Willie Horton, the black Massachusetts felon who was out on furlough when he beat a Maryland couple and raped the wife. Having been burned by ignoring Republican uses of Horton’s name and face against him in his 1988 presidential campaign, Dukakis would counsel Obama to fight right-wing Republican charges all day, every day, not making the mistake he did of thinking it was below his dignity.

The plan to appoint an interim senator is not, however, a slam dunk. A new poll showed the state’s voters about evenly split on the proposal. Furthermore, legislators are wary of changing a law many of them supported, when Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran and Senate President Robert Travaglini journeyed to Washington in April 2004, buoyed by hope that Senator John Kerry could win the presidency, allowing Republican Gov. Mitt Romney to put a Republican in the Senate. In exchange for changing the law, they asked for and got $50,000 from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee to help elect Democrats to the Massachusetts legislature. But consistency has never been a virtue to state legislators.

Now Senate President Therese Murray, whose silence had been deafening, says Wilson’s outburst Sept. 9 may have provoked legislators to enact the plan as payback to Republicans who disrespected the president and have been making false claims about health-care reform in Washington. After a recent Democratic legislative caucus, Murray said, “There’s a lot of outrage about that… which I think might have moved some people to the other side.”

Others have argued that honoring Kennedy’s request for an interim appointment would not only be a tribute to him but also advance his lifelong cause of universal health insurance. Gov. Deval Patrick has promised to sign the bill and make the interim appointment if given the power.

But it’s not a sure thing. Legislators have told me they are worried that they might be vulnerable to challenge because Speaker Sal DiMasi, reelected in January 2007 to his leadership post by a big and loud margin, was promptly indicted on federal corruption charges a few weeks later. Legislators also worry about next year’s elections because they had to raise the sales tax and still were forced to make deep cuts in transportation and social services. Two members of the state Senate then resigned in disgrace, one for lewd conduct, the other for stuffing a $1,000 payoff into her brassiere.

Aside from Dukakis, one interim candidate mentioned is Scott Harshbarger, the former state attorney general who lost a race for governor in 1998 before accepting a post as head of the national Common Cause. Who’s mentioning Harshbarger? Mostly Harshbarger. Legislators aren’t fans of his, finding him self-righteous and a bit windy.

Another dark horse is Peter Meade, who runs the newly created Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. A longtime friend of Kennedy, he was Boston’s director of public safety during the school busing crisis in the 1970s, is chairman the Rose Kennedy Greenway Park, and worked to deal responsibly with Catholic church closings necessitated by large payouts to the victims of pedophile priests. Meade serves on just about every nonprofit board in Boston, an omnipresence Gov. Patrick admires.

One important weather vane on the likelihood of an interim plan passing is whether the current odds-on favorite in the special election, Attorney General Martha Coakley, comes out in favor. She is close to Senate President Murray, and if Coakley says she’s for the plan, at least one house, if not both, will vote to approve the naming of a seat-holder.

Since John F. Kennedy, Massachusetts has bred many presidential candidates, from Ted Kennedy to Mike Dukakis, from Paul Tsongas to John Kerry, and on the Republican side Mitt Romney—none elected. The power the Bay State has wielded in Washington has really been through the Congress. And for 48 years its pillar was Ted Kennedy. Being without him seems almost unimaginable.

In one of his final wishes, Kennedy asked that the interim candidate, as an informal condition of appointment, agree not to run in the special election. Dukakis would readily and publicly accept a five-month gig. Which means that, thanks to Joe Wilson, South Carolina could send Dukakis to the Senate, where he could play a key role in reforming health care in ways that benefit millions of Americans.

And that, Joe, is no lie.

Dan Payne is a Boston-area media consultant and commentator who has worked for Democrats around the country, including Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Barney Frank.