AS A CANDIDATE for lieutenant governor in 1982, John Kerry assured the voters of Massachusetts that he wasn't seeking the position as a mere "stepping-stone" to higher office. But just one year into his four-year term, he announced his candidacy for the US Senate seat that Paul Tsongas was vacating because of illness.
Few people held Kerry's broken commitment against him. In part that was because nobody had believed it in the first place (all candidates for lieutenant governor seek the position as a stepping-stone). But it was also because everyone knew what Kerry knew: If he passed up the chance to run for the position Tsongas was relinquishing, it might be years before it opened up again. So Kerry jumped into the Senate race and won. Sure enough, the seat has been occupied ever since.
For nearly 28 years Kerry has been a senator, and in all that time no Massachusetts Democrat has ever seriously challenged him in a primary. (He faced token opposition from a little-known Gloucester lawyer in 2008). Yet once speculation began that President Obama might name Kerry to a Cabinet post, three Democratic congressmen – Edward Markey, Michael Capuano, and Stephen Lynch – quickly let it be known that they were interested in taking his place, raising the likelihood of a knock-down primary.
A Senate bid by any of them would undoubtedly trigger in turn a lively primary fight for the House seat (or seats) being vacated. Otherwise, none is likely to face more than weak opposition for his party's renomination – especially not from incumbents lower down on the food chain, hoping someday to move up. The last time a member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation lost a primary battle was 20 years ago, when Marty Meehan of Lowell ousted Concord's Chet Atkins. Before that it hadn't happened since 1970.
What's true of congressional incumbents is just as true of the mayoral variety.