On Friday, former Democratic National Committee chair Paul Kirk cleared what was probably his last legal hurdle to become the selected-not-elected “temporary senator” from Massachusetts.
A Massachusetts judge, rejecting a Republican challenge, ruled that the veteran Democratic operative was legitimately appointed and could hold his seat until a special election names a permanent successor to the late Senator Edward Kennedy.
The temorary senator’s charge is to fill seat during the Senate debate over health-care reform.
Kirk, the choice of the Kennedy family for the temporary position, is a former aide to the late senator and an exceptionally loyal Democrat — who after chairing the DNC helped create the Commission on Presidential Debates that has effectively frozen out third-party contenders for two decades.
But he is something else: An insurance-conglomerate board member who has worked as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.
Kirk sits on the board of Hartford Financial Services, a massive insurance combine that identifies itself as a “leader in group retiree medical” benefits with “flexibility in designing a plan that integrates with Medicare.”
The Hartford connection has been worth a lot to Kirk who is the firm’s longest-serving independent director. According to a review by the Boston Herald the senator-to-be collected $250,942 in salary and stock awards from the firm last year, along with stock options that extend to 2014.
Kirk has, as well, padded his bankroll with funds earned as a lobbyist for Hoechst Marion Roussel and Aventis, two of the world’s largest pharmaceutical corporations. Kirk reportedly earned $80,000 from those companies.
Should people be concerned about the fact that a man who has been positioned as “the 60th vote” for Democrats seeking health care reform is indebted to insurance and pharmaceutical giants?
Yes, says Public Citizen’s Craig Holman.
“Obviously, this is a conflict of interest and raises serious concerns,” argues the ethics-in-government advocate, who adds that the appointment of Kirk is “distressing” because “there were many qualified people.”
Among those passed over by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in his rush to appoint Kirk — after the state legislature changed the law to permit the selection — was former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The Boston Globe had argued for the choice of the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee because of his experience and his reputation for integrity.
Kirk claims that he has “no conflicts,” while at the same time suggesting that he will leave the Hartford board when he begins his four-month “temporary senator” stint.
But Holman argues: “Clearly that’s going to be a temporary resignation with a wink and a nod… Everything he learns in the Senate he is free to profit from.”
Wendell Potter, the former insurance-industry executive who left Cigna in order to blow the whistle on the industry’s profiteering and intensive efforts to influence the health care debate, was incredulous when he was contacted by Boston political reporters:
“Why in the world would they choose someone who has close ties to the insurance industry?” asked Wendell Potter, a former health insurance exec-turned-whistleblower. He noted the health insurance industry has much to gain in the current reform package, especially if coverage is mandated without competition from a government insurance option, as a bill now before the Senate finance committee proposes.
“This would represent an enormous new revenue stream for the insurance industry,” Potter said, adding of Kirk, “On one hand, he certainly would be knowledgeable of insurance issues, and on the other hand… there are going to be questions about his objectivity.”
Appointing senators is always problematic, as the troubles experienced earlier this year in Illinois, New York and other states so amply illustrated.
But Patrick’s decision to appoint a former lobbyist with close ties to an industry that could be redefined by decisions made this fall in the Senate offers what may well be the best illustration yet of why senator’s should be chosen by voters in elections — not by governors and political insiders operating in backrooms.