Congressman edges Kennedy name back into politics
WASHINGTON—He glances down the hallway to his left, takes three steps to the right and, with a smile, spins back left.
It’s another wrong turn for Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who was raised among political royalty but is just another lost freshman on Capitol Hill six weeks after taking office. His family served in Washington for most of the past six decades, but this Kennedy exits elevators on the wrong floor, struggles to locate bathrooms and has yet to make many friends.
“It’s kind of that freshman hazing ritual where nobody really will tell you where you are,” the 32-year-old Kennedy said on a recent walk to the Capitol. “It was actually yesterday where I made it over from my office through the underground tunnels and actually popped up where I thought I was going to pop up in the Capitol. First time. I was very proud of myself.”
Indeed, carrying the weight of his family name and a self-deprecating sense of humor, he is living in relative obscurity as he eases the Kennedy brand back into national politics. It was a brand without a face following the 2011 retirement of his troubled cousin, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, whose departure created the Kennedy family’s first extended absence from elective office since John F. Kennedy became a congressman in 1947.
The boy-faced Joe Kennedy III, a redhead with little political experience, is quietly bringing the name back.
He has no entourage. He shies away from national media interviews. He introduces himself simply as “Joe.” And there is little sign of entitlement when he talks about a new career in public service.
“This is gotta be on my own,” says Kennedy, a former state prosecutor and Peace Corps volunteer. “People have got to get to know me, they gotta get to know who I am, what I stand for, what my values are. And I recognize that takes time.”
He mentions the credibility his great-uncle Ted Kennedy built up over decades as a senator from Massachusetts in a career so accomplished that he earned the nickname “the liberal lion.” Even some of the Senate’s most conservative members respected him, the younger Kennedy pointed out.
“That just isn’t something that’s going to be given to you,” he says. “It’s something you gotta go earn.”
The Kennedy label, of course, evokes intrigue just as it stirs whispers of scandal, death and elitism. Patrick Kennedy left office after high-profile struggles with substance abuse and mental health. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s legacy is marred by the 1969 car accident on Chappaquiddick Island that left a woman dead.
And Joe Kennedy III never met his grandfather, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, or his great-uncle President John F. Kennedy, both of whom were assassinated more than a decade before his birth. His grandfather was in Congress himself when he was killed, serving as a senator from New York.
The young Kennedy flashes his family’s youthful good looks, ease with people and prosecutorial wit. But he also has an aw-shucks manner at times that won him the affection of colleagues when he served as Sen. Ted Kennedy’s volunteer state campaign chair in 2006.
“He’s a little in awe of where he is already, which is the best kind of representative to be,” said Stephanie Cutter, a senior aide for President Barack Obama’s campaign who had worked for Ted Kennedy. “I think a lot of other people think he should be in a rush. But I don’t think he thinks so.”
Indeed, Joe Kennedy III comes to Congress in the seat previously held by Rep. Barney Frank, with a passionate belief in the power of good government and modest expectations as a freshman member of the minority party. He says little about long-term goals, instead focusing on bridging the current political divide and helping constituents back home.
In particular, he cites an opportunity to work with Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Committee, in addition to protecting research and development on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. He hopes this is the beginning of a long career in public service.
“Members of my family — both my mother’s side and my father’s side — have found ways to serve,” Kennedy says. “And as long as I feel like I can continue to contribute — and if I get the support of the people that I’m representing — I hope to be able to. … I am enjoying this.”
But his inexperience is easy to see.
He nibbled on his fingernails while waiting more than an hour to speak during the first hearing of the science committee. With just a hint of a Massachusetts accent, the soft-spoken Harvard Law graduate stumbled over his words at times before asking a Texas Instruments official about the company’s effort to address cancer rates in his district.
But there is little doubt that his name gives him more weight than the average freshman.
The audience perked up when Kennedy was called on to speak at the committee hearing. And the other elected officials are well aware of his background.
“It was extra special for me to sit with a Kennedy at a presidential swearing-in,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a freshman California Democrat who sat next to Kennedy at Obama’s recent inauguration.
“But he’s one of the most modest, humble individuals you’ll ever meet,” Swalwell continued. “He stands on his own two feet. That’s what’s important. He would be in Congress regardless of what his name is. … He’s demonstrated nothing but a willingness to do the grunt work like the rest of us.”
Back in his Massachusetts district, Kennedy has drawn admiration and curiosity in an overwhelming Democratic state where the family name is an institution. Ted Kennedy’s widow, Vicki, is still mentioned as a potential candidate for statewide office. And Ted Kennedy Jr., 51, has considered political runs.
Despite his lack of experience, Joe Kennedy III easily won his general election last fall with more than 60 percent of the vote.
“I wanted to get to know him. I voted for him. I didn’t even know if he was 30!” said Franklin attorney Deb Batog, 48, who attended a recent luncheon for the Milford Area Chamber of Commerce simply to hear Kennedy speak.
But she said his name would only carry him so far.
“He’s still going to have to prove it,” Batog said. “Can he create his own legacy? Nobody knows.”