This Kennedy May Renew the Family Franchise

May 14 (Bloomberg) -- For more than half a century, the Kennedys were a force in U.S. politics. Their dominance began with John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential run and lasted until the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 2009.

The family’s return as a major political presence isn’t imminent; it may not be that far off, though. A candidate for a Massachusetts seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is Joseph P. Kennedy III, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and a grandnephew of the president and the senator. He’s running in a congressional district now largely represented by Democratic Representative Barney Frank, who’s retiring.

It’s not just the name; veteran politicians and Kennedy-watchers say the 31-year-old is the real deal. He draws comparisons to the young Jack Kennedy, and especially to Ted Kennedy in his first race for the Senate in 1962: Both were a little beyond their 30th birthdays, and it was their first bid for office after serving stints as county prosecutors.

An even more relevant analogy, longtime politicians say, is that Joseph Kennedy is a natural, as were his illustrious great-uncles.

“I have been around politics for a long time and only occasionally you meet someone with special skills and ability and genuine warmth,” says former Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, a Democrat. “I don’t care what his name is; that’s Joe.”

Earning It

Despite these credentials, Kennedy doesn’t convey a sense of entitlement. “I’m extremely proud of my family’s service to the country,” he said in an interview in Milford last week. “It creates a curiosity about my candidacy. But then I’ve got to earn it.”

The next generation of Kennedys after the president and his siblings have experienced their share of tragedies and successes; Timothy Shriver, a nephew of JFK, is the chairman and chief executive officer of the Special Olympics, one of the world’s best nonprofits; Caroline Kennedy, a daughter of the president, is an author, a First Amendment expert and president of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. (I am chairman of the library’s Profiles in Courage Award committee.)

Their political participation, however, has been limited. Several won office, including the father of the candidate, Joseph P. Kennedy II, who served six terms in Congress. None rose to the political prominence of their fathers or uncles.

Joseph P. Kennedy III is the first of his generation to run. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in engineering, spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, graduated from Harvard Law School, while doing pro-bono legal aide in poor Boston neighborhoods, and then worked as a prosecutor in two district attorneys’ offices.

In 2006, with his twin brother, Matt (currently working in the U.S. Commerce Department), he ran his great-uncle’s Senate re-election campaign. That wasn’t heavy lifting; Ted Kennedy won almost 70 percent of the vote.

Joseph Kennedy says that seeking political office was part of an evolution that began at the family dinner table and is driven by the desire to affect change. He’s not coasting or cornering the office. In only a few months, he’s attended 100 events in the district, often working seven days a week. “No one is going to say we didn’t work for it,” he says.

He comes across as, well, Kennedy-esque: trim, with a big smile and thatch of red hair. Heads turn when he walks into a room.

`Can’t Go Wrong’

On a recent night in Milford, his fourth trip to the town of 27,000, voters made no secret of their reverence for the Massachusetts dynasty. “Knowing the Kennedy family, I know he’ll do something for us in Congress; the Kennedys listen to the middle class,” says Elaine Nigro, a retired teacher. Marie Romagnoli says simply: “You can’t go wrong with the Kennedys.”

Jim O’Day, a state legislator for Worcester, recalls the speech the young Kennedy gave last year in the State House commemorating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s farewell speech when he left Massachusetts to assume the presidency.

“The kid was fabulous,” O’Day says.

Kennedy works the crowd with ease. An attendee asks a question in Spanish; Kennedy replies fluently in that language.

He doesn’t shy away from his legacy, citing his late uncle, “the Lion of the Senate,” as a friend of the working class and labor. Most of his remarks, and his still forming agenda, are predictably drawn from progressive Democratic boilerplate. He’s for creating “good” jobs, helping small business, a balanced fiscal approach that includes both unspecific spending cuts and tax increases and a tax code that ensures that every American “is contributing his or her fair share.”

He raised $1.3 million in the first quarter, fueled by celebrity-packed fundraisers hosted by his famous relatives. The Republicans, meanwhile, are focused on retaining the seat of the incumbent senator, Scott Brown, and maybe winning the congressional seat of Democratic Representative John Tierney.

This means that Frank’s district will almost surely be represented in 2013 by a member of the next generation of the state’s first political family.

That hasn’t stopped one Republican aspirant, Sean Bielat, who lost to Frank two years ago, from blasting Kennedy: “When you take Kennedy’s name out of the equation, he falls short,” Bielat said.

This is deja vu for old-timers who remember events 50 years ago, when the state’s attorney general who was running against the young Ted Kennedy charged: “If your name was Edward Moore your candidacy would be a joke. But it’s Edward Moore Kennedy.”

That “joke” went on to easily win the election, He served almost 47 years in the Senate, and was one of the most influential lawmakers of his age.

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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