Finding the Lion's Replacement: Democratic Candidates for Senator Kennedy's Seat

By Lucy Caplan, Joe Hodgkin, and Ian Kumekawa

Senator Edward Kennedy’s passing last month caused social and political shockwaves across America. Here in Massachusetts, amid the Senator’s wish that lawmakers grant Governor Deval Patrick the power to appoint Kennedy’s successor, a special election to fill the vacant seat has been scheduled for January of next year. With party primaries in December, Perspective takes a closer look at four likely contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Martha Coakley

Martha Coakley became the Attorney General of Massachusetts in 2007.  During her twenty-plus years of work in the public sector, she has distinguished herself by engaging with a variety of thorny issues, particularly child abuse and public safety.  And during her short tenure as Attorney General, she has already indicated a clear commitment to liberal values.

Coakley prosecuted and oversaw a number of noteworthy cases in Massachusetts, first as an Assistant District Attorney in Lowell District Court and later as District Attorney of Middlesex County, which includes Cambridge, Lowell and many of the north-of-Boston suburbs.  In 1991, she took charge of the DA’s Child Abuse Protection Unit.  In this capacity, she prosecuted, among other cases, the Commonwealth v. Louise Woodward, in which an au pair was convicted of second-degree murder after a baby died in her care.  As District Attorney, Coakley also oversaw several prominent cases dealing with sexual abuse among Catholic Church clergy.

The issue of public safety has been central to Coakley’s career – for example, she advocated for increased funding for the analysis of DNA evidence.  On September 16, she picked up a key endorsement from the 22,000-member Massachusetts Police Union.  The group’s executive director, Jim Machado, called her “a tireless advocate for safer communities and prosecuting criminals.”  On a funnier note, Coakley perhaps took this commitment to safety a bit too seriously when she defended the reaction to the Aqua Teen Hunger Force incident in 2007, during which police shut down traffic due to the presence of menacing-looking electronic advertising devices around the city.  “It had a very sinister appearance,” she claimed. “It had a battery behind it, and wires.”

But what would Coakley’s priorities be as a senator?  Her recent record as Attorney General provides some compelling clues with respect to the financial crisis, gay rights and health care.

Coakley was one of the first – and remains one of the only – law enforcement officials to investigate mortgage lenders and institute consumer protection measures.  Since taking office in 2007, she has worked to ensure that lenders are held responsible for predatory loans.  This past May, her office reached a $60 million settlement with Goldman Sachs after an investigation of their subprime lending practices.

With respect to gay rights, in July 2009, Coakley’s office filed a federal complaint challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. This was a bold and proactive move that sets her apart from the other candidates for Kennedy’s seat.  On the subject of health care, Coakley played a role in enacting the 2006 Massachusetts health care reform, which has resulted in nearly-universal health care statewide.  She created a Health Care Division within her office to focus on the new law and oversee Massachusetts hospitals, and also appointed delegates to health-care-related councils, including the Quality and Cost Council.  Coakley has also filed numerous lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies and health insurers who engaged in deceptive practices.  Coakley has indicated that as a senator, she would support an individual mandate and a public option.  Indeed, she has made health care a focal point of her campaign thus far, stating in an e-mail to supporters, “I am running for U.S. Senate to help fix our badly broken health care system once and for all.”

Stephen Pagliuca

Occupying the perennial “Massachusetts businessman” slot is Stephen Pagliuca, a venture capitalist who co-owns the Boston Celtics and is the managing director at Bain Capital.  On September 17, Pagliuca affirmed his interest in running for the seat, aided by Governor Deval Patrick’s former campaign manager Doug Rubin and whatever part of his $400 million net worth he plans to use on the campaign.  In his speech, Pagliuca linked himself to Senator Kennedy, saying, “I pledge to honor him with a campaign that focuses on making it possible for more and more of our fellow citizens to realize the American dream.”  But Pagliuca’s ties to businessmen-turned-politicians of Massachusetts may be more concrete than his ties to Senator Kennedy, as he contributed funding to Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful 1994 attempt to unseat the senator. Pagliuca’s businessman narrative and his personal resources are more likely to help him on the campaign than his political history.

Alan Khazei

Meanwhile, Alan Khazei, the co-founder of community service organization City Year, has announced his intention to run, in a statement thanking “the thousands of individuals who convened on Facebook” to push for his candidacy. Khazei is also the founder and CEO of Be the Change, Inc., an organization whose mission is to coordinate and support the political goals of nonprofit organizations. He will take a leave of absence from this post to run for Senator Kennedy’s seat. Khazei is likely to tie himself to both Senator Kennedy and President Obama’s outspoken support of community service organizations, including Americorps, of which City Year is a forerunner. Khazei says of his background, “I have dedicated myself to empowering people from all backgrounds to make a difference and strengthen our democracy.” Khazei’s campaign has already begun calling students connected to the Harvard Democrats, indicating an interest in riding the wave of youth support, which carried Obama forward last year. Some of his target audience may recognize Khazei from his appearance on the Colbert Report in February.

Michael Capuano

Congressman Mike Capuano currently serves as representative from the 8th district of Massachusetts, which includes Cambridge, Somerville, and the northern parts of Boston. Over the decade that Capuano has been in the House, he has developed a solid, if not remarkable, liberal voting record and is considered by many to be one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trusted lieutenants. However, a recent article in the Boston Phoenix pointed to possible connections between Capuano and questionable activity involving the PMA group, a now-defunct Washington-based defense lobbying firm.

Before coming to Congress in 1998, Capuano served as mayor of Somerville for eight years. In the 1998 election, when running in New England’s most democratic electoral district, Capuano was able to mobilize his city’s political machine and squeak past a great number of primary opponents with a plurality that accounted for less than 30 percent of the Democratic vote.

In the House, Capuano has established himself as a solid supporter of the Democratic establishment and liberal values. Lauded for his efforts to increase international aid funding and for his commitment to the victims of the conflict in the Sudan, he also serves on the committees for Transportation and Infrastructure, House Administration, and Financial Services. The last saw Capuano absolutely shine in February during a hearing on the use of federal funds by the first beneficiaries of the Troubled Asset Recovery Program (TARP). In response to executives’ admission that their companies continued to engage in risky financial practices even after the bailout, Capuano launched into an impassioned diatribe. In a particularly inspired section, he likened the glum bankers to both Girl Scouts and bank robbers:

“You come to us today on your bicycles after buying Girl Scout cookies and helping out Mother Teresa, telling us, ‘We’re sorry, we didn’t mean it, we won’t do it again, trust us.’ Well, I have some people in my constituency that actually robbed some of your banks. And they say the same thing. They’re sorry, they didn’t mean it, just let them out.”

With evident distaste, Capuano continued, “I don’t have one single penny in any of your banks. Not one.”

In 2007, just months after the Democrats wrested control of the House from the Republicans, Capuano was handpicked by Nancy Pelosi as Chairman of the Speaker’s Task Force on Ethics. In this capacity, he has greatly increased standards for transparency within the House of Representatives.

However, that transparency may now come back to haunt him, as his campaign was recently reported to have been the recipient of tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the now-shuttered PMA defense lobbying group, which, by some metrics, was one of the ten largest in Washington. The group is at the center of a scandal involving Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha, who may be indicted soon on charges of corruption. Murtha, who was the chair of the subcommittee that writes the Defense Department’s budget, received huge contributions from PMA. While no direct link has been drawn between Capuano and any wrongdoing, his political rivals may well try to make hay out of the closeness of Capuano and Murtha as well as Capuano’s role as the Ethics Task Force Chair.

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