For Kerry’s Seat, Party Activists Push Barney Frank Online

For Kerry’s Seat, Party Activists Push Barney Frank Online

For Kerry’s Seat, Party Activists Push Barney Frank Online

Although Governor Deval Patrick said it won’t affect his choice of a replacement, the petition drive could raise pressure to involve citizens in the process.


Barney Frank with senators Nancy Pelosi, right, and Steny Hoyer, left, in 2008. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta.)

Governor Deval Patrick is deciding who will be the next senator from Massachusetts, assuming that John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state. No one else has any official say in the decision, but many liberal activists are betting they can push Patrick online.

Over 32,000 people have now backed a petition urging Patrick to nominate Barney Frank, the recently retired liberal firebrand, as a temporary replacement. The effort is organized by the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, which also made a large early push for Elizabeth Warren, recruiting about 339,000 small donors for the professor-turned-pol.

“Our email to our members came from someone who fought really hard in Massachusetts for Warren,” said PCCC spokesman Neil Sroka, referring to Wellesley resident Cynthia Curtis. These activists want to ensure "they have a partner in the Senate over the next few months of crucial fights,” Sroka told The Nation, stressing that the net campaign had political power because it was comprised of “the very folks that worked their heart out to elect Elizabeth Warren.”

Is this actually an effective way to push an incumbent governor, who can pick any loyalist he wants?

Patrick has been walking a careful line, praising the online activism while saying that it has no actual impact on his final decision. (He told reporters the petition was “fantastic,” but also that it had no effect on him.)

Without public pressure, governors often pick former aides or allies to fill temporary vacancies (rather than politicians who could be seen as peers or rivals). That’s what happened in recent cases in Delaware, Florida and West Virginia. Patrick has the distinction of appointing his second temporary senator here; he tapped Paul Kirk after Senator Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009. That selection offers few clues into Patrick’s mindset, however, because Kirk was a former Kennedy aide and the “consensus choice” of his family, as The Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile, Frank is conducting an unusually direct campaign for the appointment. He has done several rounds of media appearances, and argued that under the fiscal cliff deal, this spring could be one of the “most important” periods in “American financial-economic history.” He believes that plays to his strength. While in Congress, Frank was a budget expert and worked on cutting Pentagon spending, including outreach to Tea Party favorite Rand Paul. (See John Nichols’s reporting on Frank’s defense credentials.) And Frank has endorsed the current party favorite, Representative Ed Markey, who hopes to win the special election and join Massachussetts’ Senate lineage, from Paul Tsongas to Ted and John F. Kennedy.

Even if the Frank petition fails to move Patrick, it is a quick way to inject some pressure on a very top-down process. While Massachussetts ultimately enables voters to pick replacement senators—a more democratic approach that was chosen for purely partisan reasons in 2004—the appointment process has made its mark on the current Senate. Since Obama was elected president, ten senators have been appointed. Five of them are still serving—Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Dean Heller, Brian Schatz and, since January 2, the Senate’s only African-American member, Tim Scott. (The Senate history office has a long list of appointees under the Seventeenth Amendment, which turned the Senate from an appointed body to an elected body in 1913.)

Nabbing an appointment is a huge edge for the next election, of course, so picking a deliberately temporary substitute is one way to keep the playing field more level. But even when it comes to the seat-warmer, governors should welcome ways to get the public more involved in the process.

In December, another online petition drive helped raise pressure on the White House to tackle gun control, Ari Melber wrote in his previous blog post.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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