Patrick Kennedy Has His Hand Out

He may not be making law, but he sure is raking in the cash

What's in a name? Plenty, if you're the Democratic Party looking to recapture the House in 2000. To do that, you need a very large bag of bullion, and to fill the bag, you need some powerful money magnets. And nothing pulls at the pockets of Democratic donors like the old Kennedy magic.

Enter Patrick J. Kennedy, the 31-year-old son of Ted, a fresh-faced Rhode Island representative who has plunged into the family business with gusto. Despite a list of legislative accomplishments shorter than the tassels on his loafers, Kennedy is proving to be every bit as fierce a competitor as his more famous relatives. Trading proudly on his moniker, the new chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is bringing home the bacon for House Democrats.

Through the first quarter of '99, the DCCC raked in a record $6.8 million. That's more than double the House Dems' take in the same period in 1997. Some of the gains were doubtless spurred by a Clinton impeachment backlash, which has boosted Democratic fund-raising across the board. But Kennedy is also demonstrating a special skill at wheedling dollars out of fat cats.

Even some Republicans think Kennedy may turn out to be a tough foe. "He's articulate, enthusiastic--and can raise a lot of money," says Representative Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "Democrats couldn't have made a better choice."

WEEKEND PLAN. The lanky Patrick, who grew up in the Washington suburbs, lacks the Boston accent and chiseled features of other family pols. But he preaches the traditional Democratic values long embraced by the Kennedy clan. At an April fund-raiser in a trendy Chicago restaurant, he gave a 40-minute pep talk without notes, winning big applause with a jab at the GOP's impeachment drive. "We wasted a year and a half of our country's resources talking about Monica Lewinsky instead of health care and Social Security," said Kennedy.

Patrick isn't shy about summoning up the Kennedy aura to advance the cause. At the Chicago event, he lauded the district's recently retired representative, who had served in the House "with my uncle, President Kennedy." For big-bucks donors, Kennedy will lay on the legend by the yard: He's offering weekend retreats at the family's Hyannis Port (Mass.) compound for prospects who pony up $100,000 or more.

Not everyone is dazzled by all this. GOP critics think Kennedy is just a hood ornament on the Dems' money machine. "Democrats will raise a ton of money with him--that's what this is all about," snipes Representative John Linder (R-Ga.), former chairman of the House GOP campaign committee.

Kennedy has often faced such put-downs. He had to work to overcome skepticism in Rhode Island, where he is still viewed by some as a carpetbagger who bought his way into the legislature in 1988 by massively outspending his primary opponent. But once there, Kennedy was no doormat. He earned a reputation as a reformer, headed a committee, and pushed through rule changes that made the legislative process more open. He and other firebrands eventually ousted several entrenched Democratic leaders. "People underestimate him, and end up being surprised," says Brown University political scientist Darrell M. West.

Kennedy won election to his House seat in 1994 and quickly became a protege of Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), despite their differences in age and background. Gephardt stumped for Kennedy in '94 and has been grooming him for a leadership post. He has also put Kennedy, who never served in the military, on the Armed Services Committee. That enables Patrick to funnel defense contracts to the Newport Naval War College and other Rhode Island military facilities.

Several more senior Democratic lawmakers angled for the DCCC post. But Kennedy--and his golden Rolodex--won out. "He knows people all over the country who can help us," says Gephardt. For a job that entails endless road trips, it's also a plus that Kennedy is a bachelor with a safe seat. "Patrick has absolutely limitless energy," says Representative Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.).

"DO OR DIE." None of this is to say that Kennedy is running the DCCC show solo. To bolster his young recruit, Gephardt named three more senior lawmakers to help guide the committee: Tauscher, an ex-investment banker who represents Silicon Valley, is the liaison to business and other House Dems; Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) oversees finance; and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) is in charge of getting out the minority vote.

An unabashed liberal, Kennedy seems out of step with his party's centrist tilt. Indeed, he's a staunch backer of gun control, environmental protection, and expansion of Medicare. But those issues still resonate with many of the core Democratic voters whose support will be crucial next year. "Turning out our base," says Kennedy, "is just as important as broadening our base."

Can Kennedy help his party win back the House? With the Dems needing just a six-seat pickup, they have a shot. And Kennedy understands what's at stake, reckoning that failure in 2000 could set Democrats back a generation. "We'll see 30 to 40 [Democratic] retirements if we don't win back the House," he concedes. "This is do or die." And if the Dems do win, who knows, maybe there will be time for Kennedy to do some lawmaking.