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Deval Patrick, Barney Frank and the politics of Senate appointments

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It’s been a week since Barney Frank retired from Congress. Since that time, he’s made it plainly clear that he wants to go back for one more short stretch; this time, in the Senate.

For the outspoken former Massachusetts Democratic congressman, the challenge will be to overcome an apparent mantra with regard to recent caretaker Senate appointments: It’s better to be safe than sorry.

President Obama’s nomination of Sen. John Kerry (D) to be the next secretary of state has left Gov. Deval Patrick (D) with a near-certain decision to make. If, as expected, the Senate confirms Kerry, Patrick will be tasked with appointing his replacement. The governor has said he is likely to appoint someone who will occupy the seat only temporarily, until a special election determines who will serve the remainder of the term.

Enter Frank. The looming high-stakes congressional debates over the nation’s debt limit and the sequester stoked his interest in returning to Washington. Here’s how the former House Financial Services Committee chairman put it in an MSNBC interview Friday: “That deal [to avert the fiscal cliff] now means that February, March and April are going to be among the most important months in American financial/economic history.”

"Normally the first few months of a session would be more ceremonial. Now, they are more critical," he added in an interview with The Fix.

Frank’s not the only one who thinks he is well-qualified for the job. The Boston Globe editorial board agrees. National liberal groups are drumming up support for Frank, who was the 25th most liberal member of the House, according to National Journal's 2011 vote ratings. Others have lavished him with praise.

“You haven’t seen this kind of grass-roots, open enthusiasm for anybody since the flurry around [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren,” said Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.

But Patrick – who doesn't intend to make an announcement until after Kerry is confirmed – hasn't settled on a replacement just yet.

“Congressman Frank is a gifted legislator and he would be a great senator even on an interim basis. There are factors I am considering and he is definitely on the list,” Patrick told reporters Friday.

It’s not difficult to see why Patrick might want to choose someone else. Frank has never been afraid to speak his mind or go after pols or decisions he disagrees with. That makes him something of a wildcard.

And when it comes to the last four Senate caretaker picks (that is, appointees who only stay on until the next election), governors have gone with safe choices, selecting close allies they know well:

* In West Virginia, Joe Manchin (D) appointed former general counsel Carte Goodwin in 2010.

* In Massachusetts, Patrick appointed Paul Kirk in 2009. Kirk was a longtime aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose death created a Senate opening. Kirk was also the consensus choice of the Kennedy family.

* In Florida, Charlie Crist appointed former chief of staff George LeMieux in 2009.

* In Delaware, Ruth Ann Minner tapped Ted Kaufman in 2008. Kaufman was a longtime adviser to the senator he was replacing, now-Vice President Biden.

It’s worth noting that Manchin and Crist went on to run for the same seats to which they appointed caretakers. Patrick has said he will not be a candidate for Kerry’s seat.

Outgoing Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez has also surfaced as a possibility for the Massachusetts appointment. If Patrick thinks Frank doesn’t fit the bill, Gonzalez might be an attractive option.

For his part, Frank appears to be making an effort to assuage fears that he would present headaches, even within his own party. He recently dialed back his strong opposition to former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel, who President Obama recently nominated to become defense secretary. On Wednesday, Frank endorsed Rep. Ed Markey (D) for the rest of Kerry's term, falling in line with the choice of Senate Democrats' campaign arm.

He hasn't shied away from reiterating his interest in the job when he's asked about it publicly because of the high stakes he sees in the appointment. "We are not talking about an invitation to a lunch or a party," Frank said.

Frank’s long congressional résumé, experience with financial matters and enthusiasm for the job make him a more than qualified candidate in the eyes of most Democrats. But in politics, it's not always about who is best qualified. That goes double for appointments. Whomever gets the job in the coming weeks will say as much about Patrick as it will about Frank.

Updated at 12:38 p.m.