The congressman is inspiring grass-roots Democrats, but is he ready to take a larger role in the fight against Trump?
Democrats are in search of new leaders to take on Donald Trump, and Rep. Joe Kennedy could fit the bill. But it's not clear he wants the job.
In short order, Kennedy has garnered a loyal grass-roots following with a series of viral speeches challenging the president on everything from health care to hate speech, leading some Democrats to believe he could help fill the party’s leadership vacuum.
It’s a shift for someone who, despite his famous last name and wavy red mane, has kept a low profile on the national scene since being elected to the House in 2012. Loath to be seen as a political celebrity, the 36-year-old from the outskirts of Boston has put in the work of a relative back-bencher and focused on delivering for his district.
But the fact is, he’s no ordinary lawmaker. He’s the grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy, a member of Democratic royalty. And his decimated party could use an infusion of young talent. As Trump continues to undermine the ideals Kennedy holds dearest, he’ll have to decide whether and how to take a larger role in the party and fight back.
Kennedy has already proved he has the ability to harness his star power, after gaining national prominence for blasting GOP efforts to dismantle Obamacare earlier this year.
But the key question for Democrats, including the more than two dozen interviewed for this story, is what’s next for the young lawmaker they say is much more than a notable last name. It’s one — to the quiet frustration of several in the party — that Kennedy seems in no hurry to answer.
“Somewhere down the road, if a Senate seat were to open, yeah, it’s something I’d certainly take a look at,” Kennedy said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “But that’s got to be right in time for me and my family.”
Since his attack on Obamacare repeal efforts, Kennedy has been slowly raising his national profile. He appeared on "The Daily Show" in August. He plans to keynote the Texas Democratic Party’s annual Johnson-Jordan dinner this week in Austin. Sources close to the congressman say they also expect him to keep up a drumbeat on Capitol Hill on Obamacare and transgender equality.
Many Democrats say Kennedy could easily assume a spot in the party’s leadership ranks, if he wants. Beyond the family legacy, Kennedy is unfailingly polite, whip-smart and well-spoken, admirers say. And he’s young, a coveted commodity as a cadre of septuagenarians are among the party’s 2020 presidential prospects and House leaders.
But unlike the crowded field of ambitious Democrats itching to be the next face of the Democratic Party — making high-profile appearances across the country and poking Trump at every turn — Kennedy can seem too cautious, even borderline boring.
“I think Joe is playing the long game, and good for him. Even though politics moves much more quickly, he can make his opportunities in a way other people can’t,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a longtime Democratic consultant in Massachusetts. “His coming-out party was the health care debate.”
Kennedy pierced the public consciousness in March after calling out Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in a speech about the merits of the GOP’s health care plan during an otherwise-ignored committee markup on the bill to repeal Obamacare.
The minute-long video of Kennedy rebutting Ryan — the GOP bill was an act of “malice,” not “mercy,” Kennedy said — garnered more than 10 million views on Facebook alone.
In some respects, defending the law is in his bones. Universal health care was the life’s mission of his larger-than-life great-uncle the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. But several people around the Capitol said they were shocked by how pointed the Massachusetts lawmaker was in his remarks.
Still, those who have known Kennedy for years say the speech and several others since then, including one viewed more than 15 million times touting diversity after white nationalists’ violent Charlottesville rally, represent the person they have always known, the man who finally seems to be coming into his own on Capitol Hill.
“Joe has really consciously chosen to keep your head down, do the work, learn the committee and get really in-depth on the issues,” said Doug Rubin, who worked as a senior strategist for Kennedy’s first congressional campaign and Elizabeth Warren’s successful Senate bid. “I think Joe’s very patient; I think he’s comfortable doing the work he’s doing now.”
In interviews with more than two dozen lawmakers, staffers, consultants, advocates and others who know Kennedy, all said they see him one day as the state’s next senator and maybe even president. And those who have tracked the Kennedys for years say he is this generation’s best chance of returning the family to its glory days as a political dynasty.
But for Kennedy, the answer to “what’s next” isn’t immediately obvious.
Kennedy has made no moves to challenge popular Republican Gov. Charlie Baker next year and isn’t expected to do so. He has also ruled out challenging Warren, who is up for reelection next year.
Kennedy could run for Senate in 2020, but that's only if Warren opts to run for the White House or Democratic Sen. Ed Markey retires. Both are far from guaranteed.
For Kennedy, that leaves no obvious next path. And while some impatient Democrats say that underscores the need for him to make a stand now more than ever, those closest to the congressman say that just isn’t his style.
“One of the keys to legislative life is you have to know when to push forward and when to pause,” said Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, dean of the Massachusetts delegation, who also served with Kennedy’s father, Rep. Joe Kennedy II, in the 1990s.
Neal and others said the younger Kennedy embodies some of the best qualities of those who came before him: a sense of urgency like his father, but with the patience and willingness to work within the legislative system, like his Uncle Teddy. And unlike the family's politicians before him, Kennedy has managed to stay controversy free.
“I think eventually he’d make a great senator,” Neal added. Eventually is the key word.
Kennedy answers questions about his future now with the same earnestness he did last year, when Warren was being floated as a potential running mate to Hillary Clinton.
He has great respect for both Markey and Warren, he said, and will not challenge either if they’re not ready to walk away. With Warren, the connection is particularly personal; Kennedy met his wife, Lauren, in Warren’s law school class at Harvard.
Kennedy’s family is also growing: they have one toddler-aged daughter, Eleanor, and are expecting a son in December. Adding another little one to an already hectic schedule that includes traveling weekly between Washington and Massachusetts will be difficult. But Kennedy also said the chaos in Washington, driven by Trump in the White House, has reignited a sense of urgency within him.
“It’s awfully hard on a family, particularly a young family, there’s no doubt about that,” he said, but added, “The conversations I’ve had with my wife on this … the issues both of us care about are more at risk today than they would be under a Democratic administration.”
For now, that means focusing on the issues he cares about most that are under threat in the Trump administration — health care, transgender rights and immigration.
Those who know Kennedy best say two things in his life particularly influenced the worldview he has today. His mother, Sheila Rauch, took care to give Joe and his twin brother, Matt, an upbringing that was separate, although not excluded from, the Kennedy family spotlight. And Kennedy spent two years serving in the Peace Corps — the organization started by his great-uncle President John F. Kennedy — in the Dominican Republic, an experience he has called “formative” to his life and the way he operates as a lawmaker.
Another, perhaps surprising, experience that left an indelible mark on Kennedy? A conversation he had with then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) early in his first term in 2013.
“He said, essentially, in this business there’s always another round,” Kennedy recalled. “Your ally today could be your adversary tomorrow and your ally the next day. Work hard, be polite, be respectful and don’t take it personally.”
“That last part is sometimes the hardest part,” particularly with the partisanship surrounding the health care debate, he said. “But I try to remind myself that my colleagues would not be here if they didn’t care passionately about these issues.”
Kennedy’s attitude has won him broad support in his district and on Capitol Hill among both Democrats and Republicans.
“He’s passionate about what he’s passionate about. But he’s also reasonable enough to sit down and have a conversation, and we’ve done that many times together,” said Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, who considers Kennedy one of his closest friends.
And Mullin, like others, is bullish about Kennedy’s future.
“Joe is capable of running for the highest office if he’d like to,” he said. “But when you talk to Joe about it, he’ll tell you ‘I’m young, and I enjoy where I’m at right now.’”
This article has been republished from www.politico.com