Let Barney Frank Take Over for Kerry

He doesn't want to run for the seat and could help win the debt limit fight. So why do some Massachusetts Democrats want a less experienced appointee instead?

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Jason Reed/Reuters

"All politics is local," the late Democratic House speaker Tip O'Neill famously observed, and Republican members of Congress who vote in fear of primary challenges from right-wing activists would probably agree. But sometimes, all politics is personal.

Consider the apparent role of personal animus, or mistrust, in machinations over the crucial, interim appointment to the U.S. Senate seat expected to be vacated by Secretary of State nominee John Kerry. A special election to fill Kerry's unfinished term will likely be held by the end of June, 2013, as Massachusetts law requires an election within 145 to 160 days of a seat being vacated. The governor will appoint someone to serve in the interim, and Governor Deval Patrick has pledged to appoint a caretaker who will not run in the special election.

Democratic leaders, justifiably worried about a likely comeback campaign by Scott Brown, are trying to avoid a battle in advance of the special election. So when Congressman Ed Markey, buoyed by $3 million in the bank, announced his candidacy in the special election, he was quickly anointed by the national and state Democratic establishment, to the chagrin of Congressman Mike Capuano, who is also considering running for Kerry's seat, along with Congressman Steve Lynch.

Enter former congressman Barney Frank, who announced last week he is seeking the interim appointment. Frank has a friendly relationship with Capuano and, since redistricting, has had a rather unfriendly one with Markey. Announcing his retirement last year, Frank accused Markey of using his influence in the state legislature to protect himself during redistricting to the detriment of others in the Massachusetts delegation, Frank in particular.

Declaring his interest in the seat, Frank reiterated his firm commitment not to run in the special election and noted persuasively that, in the interim, he is especially well-qualified to help resolve historic, pending fiscal debates. Markey apparently disagrees. He was "rankled" by the possibility of Frank's appointment, the Boston Globe reports, because he fears being "overshadowed" by him.

Enter political consultant Doug Rubin, advisor to Patrick, new Senator Elizabeth Warren, and many members of the state Democratic establishment that's supporting Markey. Not surprisingly, Rubin has announced his opposition to Frank's appointment: "[T]here are better options for MA Senate interim appointment," he tweeted.

Who might be more qualified than Barney Frank? Someone less qualified, according to Rubin. "(E)xperienced people are the ones creating the gridlock" in Washington," he told the Globe. We need to "get beyond the traditional names" to people who will bring "fresh ideas and energy to Washington."

I'll give Rubin the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn't actually believe that inexperience is a virtue. I bet he doesn't consider his own experience as a political consultant a disadvantage that deprives him of "fresh ideas and energy." I bet he doesn't advise prospective clients not to hire him because he knows what he's doing. And I suspect he knows that it's inexperienced people -- mainly freshman Tea Party members of Congress -- not experienced people (like John Boehner), who have "created the gridlock in Washington."

But I do question Rubin's political acumen if he thinks rejecting Frank's bid for an interim appointment will help Markey win the special election for the seat. Frank can be trusted not to run. If he wanted to run for Senate, he'd say so. (Has anyone ever accused Barney Frank of not saying what he thinks?) Besides, Frank is newly married, in his early seventies, and has seemed relaxed and happy contemplating retirement. He will not be Markey's opponent, and serving as an interim senator, he could be Markey's friend.

Politically, Frank's visibility and the role he could play in the fiscal debates seem likely to help Democratic efforts to fend off Scott Brown, not hamper them. And Frank might naturally be more inclined to help Markey if he doesn't oppose Frank's interim appointment.

Of course, the deal may be done. Rubin denies speaking for the governor (or Elizabeth Warren), but even if that's true, he is speaking to the governor, as well as other state Democratic leaders. Too bad for Massachusetts, and the country, if they listen.

Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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