Representing the next generation of the Kennedy clan
As a new member of the US House of Representatives, Joseph P Kennedy III understands the weight of his family name, but he wants to forge his own destiny
Joseph P Kennedy III is the only member of the Kennedy family currently holding political office in the US. Photograph: Suzanne Kreiter/Globe
H e recalls sitting around the dinner table at his grandmother’s house listening to his aunts and uncles and older cousins debate the issues of the day. At the age of eight, he “pretty much watched
”, he says. “It was one of those valuable experiences for me to listen and observe.” This would be the average experience for any child growing up in a large family. But when the family is that great American political dynasty, the Kennedys, and around the dinner table are the many children and grandchildren of the late Robert F Kennedy, it makes the act of speaking up by one of the youngest members of the family that bit more daunting.
The exposure to these wide-ranging debates clearly rubbed off on the young Joseph P Kennedy III, the grandson of Bobby; he is the only member of the Kennedy clan currently holding political office in the United States. “You saw how passionate people were, that even in the midst of the same family you could have a spirited debate about various issues,” Kennedy, sitting in his congressional office on Capitol Hill in Washington, says of those regular family dinners.
“We have got a big family and people were going off all over the country, all around the world doing different things. No one is shy. They all had the courage to be able to stand up and speak their minds.”
Kennedy was elected to the House of Representatives for Massachusetts ’ fourth congressional district last November, winning an impressive 61 per cent of the vote against Republican nominee Sean Bielat.
The self-effacing and intelligent 32-year-old is the son of Sheila Rauch and Joseph P Kennedy II, the second of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy ’s children and himself a Democratic congressman from 1987 to 1999. Joseph P Kennedy III and his twin brother, Matt, have been immersed in politics from an early age. They were born in October 1980, around the time when his father was working on the presidential campaign of then US senator Ted Kennedy. Some of his earliest memories were of the campaign trail when his father first ran for Congress. He and his brother were six years old and enjoyed playing with campaign confetti at rallies.
“I have snapshots of that very first campaign. There are still some photographs up in my dad’s house. Both my brother and I got married last year so there were rather embarrassing photographs of us at various campaign events when we were yay tall,” he says, holding up a hand.
The freshman congressman, just two months in elected office, is deeply proud of his family’s long-standing service to public life in Massachusetts and the US. He understands the weight of the family name he carries in political office but equally he wants to plough his own furrow.
Kennedy ran an aggressive campaign last year, wearing out shoe leather meeting voters in a district spanning Brookline near Boston in the north to the southern Massachusetts coast. He says he wanted constituents to “come out and kick the tyres” – to meet him and to understand first hand his policies and values.
“It was extraordinarily important for me to give people that opportunity so they understand who they are voting for and supporting,” he says.
“I am extraordinarily proud of my family but it is important for people to know the real me and not just what they might think of when they think of various members of my family.”
Polite, eloquent and considered, Kennedy speaks with great authority and bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather. He has been busy working at his desk, despite wearing a heavily supportive sling on his right arm – the result of treatment to fix an old sporting injury. He played lacrosse while studying at Stanford University in California. A teetotal, his teammates nicknamed him “The Milkman” after one party when he matched every beer his friends drank with a glass of milk.
Kennedy studied management science and engineering at Stanford. After graduating he worked in the peace corps (founded by his great-uncle, then US president John F Kennedy, in 1961) in the Dominican Republic and East Timor. It was in East Timor that he came across Tom Hyland, the former Dublin Bus driver from Ballyfermot who became a campaigner for Asia ’s poorest country – “an incredible guy”, says Kennedy.
After years of travelling, Kennedy wanted to be closer to home so he enrolled in Harvard Law School and later worked as an intern for a Republican district attorney before taking a full-time job as a prosecutor. Prosecuting cases made Kennedy look differently at every file on his desk, each one being “somebody’s life”, he says. He saw them as problems to solve rather than “another person to prosecute”, and that brought him into policy discussions about what could have been done earlier to help the person being charged. “It starts to get you looking further upstream to what caused that crime to be committed.”
In his new job, one of the biggest challenges facing Congress is the long-overdue reform of immigration laws to tackle the US’s 11 million illegal immigrants – the so-called “undocumented” of which there are thousands of Irish, including many in Kennedy’s congressional district in Massachusetts.
Kennedy’s great-uncle Ted tried and failed to push through an immigration Bill with Republican senator John McCain in 2006. But Kennedy believes there is a strong likelihood of legislation passing this time as momentum builds around broad principles on tightening border control, a pathway to citizenship, and simplifying the legal route to a visa to attract job-creating talent to the US.
“We need to get this done now. Not only do I believe it is the right thing to do morally, it is the right thing to do economically. It is the right policy decision. We have got an immigration system that I quite simply believe is broken.”
Another hot political topic is US president Barack Obama’s plans to overhaul gun ownership laws, including a ban on military-style assault weapons. Kennedy unsurprisingly supports the pressure the president is exerting on Congress to vote on the White House ’s proposals; his family has experienced its own share of gun violence.
“My family, yes, has a personal history with this; far too many other families have as well. I think this is something the president said very eloquently – they deserve a vote,” says Kennedy.
Passing laws through Congress is difficult when a Democratic president is continuously clashing with a House of Representatives led by Republicans, particularly over divisive budgetary issues. For a new Democratic congressman in a Republican-controlled chamber, Kennedy admits this can be “frustrating”.
“There is a party in charge here that largely wants smaller government . . . so fewer days in session and less legislation passed isn’t necessarily a defeat for them – that is in fact what they are looking for,” he says.
Kennedy believes government “can be a source for good” and that Congress has to “start taking on some of these problems in a real and big way”.
One of the few occasions when Democrats and Republicans put aside their differences is St Patrick’s Day. This year, Republican House speaker John Boehner will host the traditional Irish-American lunch on Capitol Hill for the Taoiseach, his visiting party and members of Congress.
Kennedy is not sure whether the congeniality that gets a small country access to the corridors of power in Washington is unique to Ireland, but it is very powerful, he says, and something he values.
“People like to be around folks who are friendly, jovial, who like to laugh and have a joke and enjoy themselves. That’s one of the great things whenever you see the St Paddy’s Day up in Boston and around the country. It is a time of joy, a time of reflection, a time of friends coming together, a time of enjoying each other’s company.”
Kennedy’s Irish heritage is “extremely important” to him, he says, acknowledging the service of his great-aunt Jean Kennedy Smith as US ambassador to Ireland, the role Ted Kennedy played in the Northern Irish peace process, and his father’s commitment to Ireland while serving in Congress. He visited Dublin a year and a half ago and is “trying to find a way back this summer”.
“The roots are so deep and, for so many members of my family, despite the fact that we might be gone a while, it is still considered by so many of us a home away from home and looked on very fondly.”
Two other prominent Irish-Americans in US politics, congressmen Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey, are fighting it out to be on the Democratic ticket in the June election for the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by former presidential nominee John Kerry after Obama installed him as secretary of state.
Kennedy declines to say which of his congressional colleagues he will be backing. “Both of them are extraordinarily impressive individuals who will serve Massachusetts really well in the Senate or Congress,” he says.
And would this be a seat he would have an eye on in the future? “My friend, the only seat I have an eye on is the one I am sitting in right now,” he says, flashing that famous Kennedy smile.