Could this man revive Camelot?
By David S. Bernstein, January 18, 2011
We are all mere mortals, Massachusetts pols like to say, and they are Kennedys. That reality helps explain the constant stream of political speculation surrounding members of that clan in the two and a half years since the death of Senator Edward Kennedy in 2009.
Many — myself included — were convinced that the widow Vicki Kennedy would run for his seat in the Senate. Others insisted that his nephew, former congressman Joe Kennedy II, would take on that challenge. After Ted Kennedy Jr. delivered an engaging and emotional eulogy for his father, rumors ran rampant that he would move back from Connecticut to run for office. Caroline Kennedy, who took a high-profile whiff at winning a Senate appointment in New York to succeed Hillary Clinton, was similarly rumored to be considering a Bay State return. And Joe’s twin sons, Joe Kennedy III and Matthew Kennedy, were floated for any number of races, including the congressional district containing the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, which Bill Delahunt vacated in 2010; and the special election for State Senate, just won by William Brownsberger earlier this month.
Finally, we have more than rumor and speculation. Joe III has opened an exploratory committee in preparation for a campaign in the state’s Fourth Congressional District, to succeed Barney Frank.
It’s hard to overstate the level of interest Kennedy’s announcement engenders in this state. It is the first political run by a Kennedy since Ted’s death. Ted’s son Patrick Kennedy chose not to run for re-election to Congress in Rhode Island in 2010, leaving Washington without an elected member of the storied family for the first time in more than a half-century.
Perhaps even more important, 31-year-old Joe is the first of the so-called fifth-generation Kennedys to seek office. He and Matt are among the oldest of some six dozen (and counting) members of that cohort, which includes Cuomos, Lawfords, Schlossbergs, Schwarzeneggers, Shrivers, and Townsends.
Perhaps if the first of that crop came from one of those branches, with a different last name — or in another state, or while there were still members of the older generations in office — it could be just a slight novelty.
But the first campaign of this generation comes here in Massachusetts, in the form of a handsome young man who, but for the startling red hair, looks like he belongs right in those old photos of the young JFK, Teddy, and his grandfather Bobby.
There is no escaping it: Kennedy will be scrutinized not merely as a potential representative of the fourth district, but as The One, the next great Kennedy, the liberal hope — the man who could bring the revival of Camelot.
'WE WANT ANOTHER ONE'
Kennedy, currently a prosecutor in the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, is not yet speaking with the press. He is, however, rapidly assembling a campaign team that is said to include Nick Clemons, Doug Rubin, Tom Kiley, Brian O’Connor, and his brother Matt.
Unlike his father, who had to best 10 Democratic opponents in his first congressional campaign, in 1986 — to succeed Tip O’Neill for the seat once held by JFK — it appears that Kennedy may face a relatively small field. Several people eying the race have backed down since Kennedy revealed his plans. Bristol District Attorney Sam Sutter quickly announced his intention to run in the new ninth district instead. Brookline Selectman Jesse Mermell bowed out. Businesswoman and former lieutenant-governor candidate Deborah Goldberg tells me she is “not running for this seat at this time” (wording that potentially leaves the door open if Kennedy flops). Former Senate candidate Alan Khazei and State Senator Cynthia Creem are both said to be unlikely to run now.
It’s not surprising. Not only will Kennedy have plenty of funding and institutional support, the family name is gold these days, particularly in that district. That wasn’t entirely true for his father in 1986, six years after Ted’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. But a recent poll (not commissioned for Kennedy) showed sky-high favorable attitudes toward Joe III — which, given how little people know about him, is probably a reflection of the Kennedy brand.
"We’ve moved to the Kennedy nostalgia phase," says one Democratic operative in Boston. "We want another one."
The field has not been entirely cleared, however. The most prominent Democrat remaining is Boston city councilor and Newton native Michael Ross, who previously opened his own exploratory committee. Ross appears to be moving ahead with his efforts, but many insiders say he will find his support — including funding — deserting him for Kennedy.
On the GOP side, the front-runner is Sean Bielat, who gave a strong challenge to Barney Frank in 2010. Bielat proved adept at raising money nationally off of conservatives’ animus toward Frank, and may be able to do the same if he faces a Kennedy.
Kennedy’s family name will, after all, energize opposition as well as support. And even among Democrats, some voters will undoubtedly be turned off by his apparent bigfooting of the race.
But in conversations with Massachusetts Democratic insiders, I could find no hint yet of a Kennedy backlash.
While reserving judgment about how he will prove as a campaigner, let alone a congressman, people almost universally describe him as smart, warm, down-to-earth, and serious about the family legacy.
Voters, says someone who knows the family, “will see a thoughtful, hard-working young man, who believes deeply in public service.”
He is, they say, a good vessel to handle the pressure and scrutiny of being the first post-Ted Kennedy to seek office.
"He’s a very grounded person," says Scott Ferson, consultant with Liberty Square Group and Ted Kennedy’s former press secretary.
Joe and Matt, people say, are very much their mother’s sons. Sheila Brewster Rauch, who went through a very public and contentious divorce from Joe II when the boys were 10, raised them in Cambridge and sent them to Buckingham Browne & Nichols. Joe opted to head west to Stanford for college, much as his father attended the University of California–Berkeley. He got his law degree from Harvard, spent two years in the Dominican Republican with the Peace Corps (and is said to speak fluent Spanish), and has worked in two district attorneys’ offices.
His political “coming out” came a year ago, when he delivered a well-received speech to the Massachusetts legislature after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.
Matt has often been considered the more political-minded of the two; since the two co-chaired Ted’s 2006 re-election campaign he has been more active in that realm, working for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in New Hampshire, and working for a stint in the White House.
More than one person I spoke with couldn’t help comparing the two to Jack and Bobby, with Joe, like Jack, the charming, affable candidate, and Matt, like Bobby, the savvy operator.
That comparison is not the kind of pressure Democrats want to place on Joe. Insiders expect him to run a low-key campaign of neighborhood hand-shaking appearances, to replace broad Kennedy stereotypes with personal contact.
"He’s going to define himself by virtue of running," says political consultant Mary Anne Marsh, of Dewey Square Group. "He’s going to travel around that district, and people are either going to like him or not."
He is also going to begin defining the next generation of the Kennedy family — whether he intends to or not. It was Ted himself who, in his surprise appearance at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, called again for “the torch to be passed again to a new generation of Americans.” He meant Obama, but in Massachusetts we will always look to apply it to the Kennedys.