BOSTON — Paul G. Kirk Jr. served Edward M. Kennedy as an aide, rooted beside him at Harvard-Yale football games and is the executor of his will. Now, as Kennedy's replacement in the Senate, he is charged with trying to complete his late friend's legacy by passing health care reform.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick tapped the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Thursday to hold Kennedy's seat until a special election Jan. 19. Kirk, 71, said he would not run himself.
The announcement came after the Democratic-dominated Legislature changed the state's Senate succession law to restore the governor's power to appoint an interim replacement. Republicans went to court in a last-ditch effort to stop Kirk from being sworn in.
President Barack Obama and his staff lobbied for the change, hoping to regain a 60th Democratic vote that would prevent Senate filibusters from derailing his top legislative priority, a national health care overhaul.
Obama said in a statement: "Paul Kirk is a distinguished leader, whose long collaboration with Sen. Kennedy makes him an excellent, interim choice to carry on his work until the voters make their choice in January."
Kennedy's widow and sons had encouraged Patrick to appoint Kirk. Vicki Kennedy and Edward Kennedy Jr. sat in the front row next to Kirk's wife, Gail, as the governor made his announcement at the Statehouse.
Besides health care, Patrick said Kirk would represent the state's interests in upcoming debates on the economic recovery, financial regulation and climate change.
"In all these and other ways, Congress is debating our future — right now," Patrick said. "The issues before the Congress and the nation are simply too important to Massachusetts for us to be one voice short."
Kennedy died last month of brain cancer. Kirk, who has never held elective office, recalled how his late friend used to say representing Massachusetts in the Senate "was the highest honor he possibly could have imagined."
"It's certainly nothing I imagined, but it would be my highest honor as well," Kirk said.
He is to be sworn in Friday afternoon by Vice President Joe Biden. The Massachusetts Republican Party went to a Boston court seeking an injunction to stop Kirk's swearing-in, questioning an emergency power the governor invoked in naming him.
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In restoring the governor's power to appoint an interim senator, lawmakers declined to have it go into effect immediately, rather than after the standard 90 days. The governor has the power to put the law into effect if he deems it an emergency; Republicans say this law does not qualify.
State Secretary William F. Galvin said the power to make the immediate appointment is "very clearly available" to governors and was used more than a dozen times by Patrick's Republican predecessor, Mitt Romney. The court set a hearing for 8 a.m. Friday.
More broadly, Republicans have accused Patrick of a power grab. In 2004, Democrats revoked the governor's power to appoint an interim senator when Sen. John Kerry was running for president because Romney stood to name his replacement if he won.
Kirk: No conflicts of interest
The appointment put Kirk's background under scrutiny.
Federal records show he registered as a lobbyist a decade ago and represented two drugmakers before Congress. He has also held several board positions, including at Hartford Financial Services, which sells life and property insurance.
Kirk pledged to resign all of his current board seats. He noted wryly that he had represented the drug and insurance companies "back at the turn of the century" and said he holds no current conflicts.
The senator-designate graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and served on Kennedy's staff from 1969 to 1977. He ran the Democratic National Committee during Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' unsuccessful run for president in 1988.
Kirk also co-founded the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored every presidential and vice presidential debate since 1988.
Kennedy's will, signed three years to the day before he died and filed Thursday in probate court, names Kirk as executor. The will leaves all of Kennedy's assets to a trust that provides for his family.
Members of the family were quick to praise the appointment. Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, said in a statement that Kirk's "wisdom, kindness and integrity mean the world to the entire Kennedy family."
Vicki Kennedy, stressing that the decision to appoint Kirk was the governor's, said she had conveyed to Patrick "the high esteem with which the entire Kennedy family held Paul Kirk."
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