Senator Kennedy is dead at 77
U.S. Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, who represented Massachusetts for 47 years and was inextricably linked to Martha's Vineyard, died at his Hyannis Port home late Tuesday night, after battling brain cancer for more than one year.
His death, while not unexpected, leaves the Senate without his energetic leadership and negotiating skill and Massachusetts without its senior senator. Senator Kennedy exerted enormous influence on both sides of the Senate aisle and his death comes at a pivotal time in the effort to change the way the nation provides health care, an issue of great importance for him throughout much of his legislative career and until his final days. He called it the "cause of his life."
Last week Mr. Kennedy, in a letter delivered to legislative leaders and Governor Deval Patrick, asked them to change state law to allow the governor to fill with a temporary stand-in the Senate seat that would be vacant if he died from the cancer that had disabled him so severely that he did not attend his sister Eunice's recent funeral.
In 2004, state Democrats, concerned about the possible departure of Senator John Kerry, then a presidential candidate, changed the state law to require a special election within five months of any vacancy. Democrats did not want to leave an appointment up to then Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican.
Yesterday, Gov. Patrick told a radio reporter that he would urge the Legislature to pass and would sign such a bill. Conducting a round of television interviews praising Mr. Kennedy, he called the proposal "entirely reasonable."
Mr. Kennedy's death leaves Massachusetts with a vacant U.S. Senate seat for the first time since 1985. Politicians from the state's constitutional offices, U.S. congressional delegation, and unelected ranks are expected to compete in what promises to be an expensive and wide-open race.
State law calls for a special election by mid-winter.
State lawmakers agree
State Sen. Robert O'Leary, whose district includes the Cape and Islands, said yesterday he supports changing the state law to allow for a gubernatorial appointment. "I absolutely think that's the appropriate thing to do, and we're trying to move legislation to do that," he said. "Frankly, I've been surprised at the negative reaction."
Though originally in favor of the 2004 change to require a special election, Mr. O'Leary said that holes remain in the special election legislation.
Sen. O'Leary said it was difficult to begin conversation about a vacancy in the Senate when Senator Kennedy was sick, but that the senator's letter opened the door to that discussion.
"Sen. Kennedy wanted to make sure Massachusetts has two voices and two votes in Washington without a break," Sen. O'Leary said. "We need to set about it right away, as now Massachusetts is only to have one vote until January, I think. That's a huge problem, especially with all the health care legislation coming up this fall."
Mr. O'Leary added, "I'm going to miss him, both personally and professionally. He was a wonderful person and legislator, and a real asset to our community."
State Rep. Tim Madden yesterday sat on the fence. He said he remains undecided regarding the effort to change the law and is not sure how Mr. Kennedy's death will affect that discussion.
"My feeling is they probably got it wrong five years ago, but I wasn't party to that debate then, so I couldn't say whether it was right or wrong," said Mr. Madden, who was elected last fall. "Vacancy is something you would like to try to avoid, but at same time I don't think you should be changing the law every few years. Realistically, if it comes to a vote, I honestly don't know what I would do right now. I'm torn."
Mr. Madden said it is clear that there must be changes to the current health care system. He added, "It's a sad day for the nation."
Senator Kennedy's endorsement of then candidate Barack Obama during the hard fought Democratic primary battle provided a critical lift during Mr. Obama's struggling campaign.
This morning, President Obama stepped to a podium set up on the grounds of Blue Heron Farm in Chilmark and spoke briefly to the pool of reporters covering his vacation activities about his relationship with Mr. Kennedy and the senator's death.
"Over the past several years, I've had the honor to call Teddy a colleague, a counselor, and a friend," the president said. "And even though we have known this day was coming for some time now, we awaited it with no small amount of dread."
Mr. Obama said Mr. Kennedy had fought his illness with courage. "His fight has given us the opportunity we were denied when his brothers John and Robert were taken from us: the blessing of time to say thank you, and goodbye," he said.
President Obama called Senator Kennedy a "singular figure in American history" whose "ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives."
The president described Senator Kennedy as one of the greatest senators of our time, and "one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy.
"His extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end. And the extraordinary good that he did lives on. For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was the defender of a dream."
Kennedy divided Island
Senator Kennedy played a pivotal role in the development battles of Martha's Vineyard, and the Island - the small island of Chappaquiddick to be precise - was a critical milestone in Mr. Kennedy's once apparently unlimited political trajectory.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Kennedy drafted legislation known as the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust Bill, igniting a blazing Vineyard controversy. In essence, the bill sought to place the Vineyard, Nantucket and the Elizabeth Islands under the protection of a federal trust and create specific zones that would allow for development with limits or no development in "forever wild" areas.
According to a Time Magazine story published on June 30, 1973 Islanders were bitterly divided and 60 percent voted against the measure in a referendum.
The argument reached a climax that July when the Senate Interior Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation held a public hearing that drew nearly 2,000 people to the Tisbury School.
The late Herbert Hancock, a Chilmark selectman, said the bill would make the Island "forever worthless to all but the raccoons and conservationists."
Then Chamber of Commerce president Robert Carroll said, "The Senator's methods smack of Mussolini!"
But Senator Kennedy, referencing Cape Cod, cautioned Islanders. "I come from a part of the state with more pizza parlors, hot dog stands and saltwater taffy than you can imagine," said Mr. Kennedy. "Anyone who believes that 14 miles of open sea can protect them from these problems has not seen what we have seen in Hyannis or in other parts of this country."
Ultimately the effort failed. But concern over unchecked development did lead to the creation of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the Island's powerful land use regulatory body, and later the Cape Cod Commission.
Chappy turning point
But another, earlier chapter in Senator Kennedy's long relationship with Martha's Vineyard would nearly prove to be his political undoing and cast a shadow over all his many legislative accomplishments.
On July 18, 1969, Mr. Kennedy attended a cocktail party on Chappaquiddick, the easternmost part of Martha's Vineyard reached by the small three-car ferry that crosses Edgartown Harbor or when there is no breech, a thin strip of barrier beach that separates Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
Mr. Kennedy left the party with Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, in his 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88. He drove off the island's only paved road along a dirt road that led to Dike Bridge, a small wooden crossing over a channel that connects two salt ponds.
Mr. Kennedy drove off the bridge, and his car landed on its roof in the water. Mr. Kennedy got out and swam to shore. Ms. Kopechne remained in the car and died.
Mr. Kennedy did not report the incident to authorities until the next day, when the car and Ms. Kopechne's body were found. He later received a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident.
The liberal lion emerges
Mr. Kennedy took the seat that had been held by his brother John in 1962, and was elected to eight full terms. During his early years in the Senate, Mr. Kennedy worked for progressive policies on immigration, voting rights, and Vietnam, advocating U.S. withdrawal. As he built Senate prowess and was buffeted by his own family's medical afflictions, he became increasingly involved in health care policy, leading the charge for increased unemployment benefits, disability rights, and AIDS funding. He became a top foil to President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s.
After a stretch of public embarrassments and misbehavior, marked by drinking and womanizing, Mr. Kennedy in his sixties aged into a more statesman-like figure, marrying his second wife, Victoria Reggie, in 1992, after his 1982 divorce from his first wife, Joan.
During the Clinton years, Senator Kennedy helped secure minimum wage increases, consumer victories on health records, and expanded health care for children and those suffering from mental illness. He worked with President George W. Bush to pass the landmark No Child Left Behind education bill, though Mr. Kennedy later criticized Mr. Bush for providing what Mr. Kennedy said was insufficient funding for the program. He was louder in his broadsides against Mr. Bush's foreign policy.
Hailed in his later life as the "liberal lion," Sen. Kennedy, was a hero to progressives for his work on health care and civil rights. He was also the patriarch of the extended Kennedy clan. He was the last surviving brother from the generation that produced an American president and three U.S. senators.
When he fell ill in May 2008 and was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, outpourings from across the American political spectrum hailed Mr. Kennedy, long an enemy to the right, as a committed, durable lawmaker with a record of compassion.
President Obama has ordered that all flags be flown at half staff, in honor of the late senator, until he is laid to rest.
Lauren Folino and the State House News service contributed to this report.