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Massachusetts may look to Kerry with Kennedy ailing

Andrew Miga | 6/11/2008, 5:31 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry has labored for nearly 25 years in the imposing shadow cast by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who parlayed his clout as one of the most influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill into a bonanza for Massachusetts.

But Kennedy’s cancer diagnosis is a stark reminder that the state won’t always have the powerful 76-year-old senior senator championing its interests in Washington. Kennedy’s medical condition has also prompted questions about Kerry’s ability to fill the void, particularly if Kennedy is unable to complete his eighth term, which ends in 2012.

“Massachusetts has lived, in some sense, an incredibly charmed life on the Hill,” said Republican political analyst Jim Nuzzo. “We have power completely disproportionate to our size because of Kennedy in the Congress. He’s been extraordinary.”

Kennedy’s departure could mean more pressure on Kerry, who has had leeway to pursue global issues like foreign affairs and the environment while Kennedy handled the brunt of the heavy lifting for the state’s interests in Washington.

“When Kennedy stops being in Congress who, if anyone, will step up? Or will Massachusetts’ influence wane considerably?” said Nuzzo. “There’s nothing that Kerry has shown in all the years he’s been in Congress that suggests he’ll do it … Now, maybe he will, but there’s nothing to suggest it.”

Bay State Republicans have long delighted in tweaking Kerry for being more concerned with advancing his own national ambitions than the needs of the state. Kerry’s opponents, including some Democrats, needle him for not spending more time on local issues. Ed O’Reilly, a Democrat challenging for Kerry’s Senate seat in November, complains Kerry is out of touch with Massachusetts residents.

With his losing 2004 presidential bid behind him and a botched joke about the Iraq war helping to snuff out his 2008 White House ambitions, Kerry has been campaigning for a fifth term. He stresses his work on local issues like fishing aid, preventing home foreclosures, disaster aid and grants for firefighting equipment.

Kerry defenders counter that it’s hard for the junior senator to play a stronger role advocating for the state now because Kennedy is so dominant.