I first met Joe Kennedy III in 2012, when he ran for office the first time. Barney Frank was leaving Congress, and Democrats were lining up to run for his open seat. Joe had never run for office and wasn’t well-known, but he was a Kennedy and this was Massachusetts. His entry cleared the Democratic field, and he easily defeated a pretty strong Republican.
Because his district includes towns covered by the newspaper where I ran the editorial page, Kennedy and I have met with some regularity in the years since. He’s always struck me as smart, humble (for a Kennedy), and dedicated to public service. He’s principled, and as liberal as the bluest parts of his very blue district. But he also scrupulously visits every small town in his sprawling district, keeps in touch with his constituents and has the kind of quality staff that has long been the hallmark of the Kennedys.
During my recent trip to DC (my column is here) I sat down again with Joe. Here’s my report.
By Rick Holmes
Special to the Daily News
Washington, DC - First the good news. Ask Rep. Joe Kennedy III how he’s doing, and he’s all smiles. He and his wife are expecting their second child sometime in December, a boy. And how are things going in Congress? “Not great,” he says.
Kennedy spoke from his office on the prestigious side of the Cannon Building, where you can look out and see the Capitol, if you stand in just the right spot. The House was about to pass a tax reform bill he considers unfair, packed with bad policies and unlikely to accomplish much beyond blowing a hole in the deficit.
The tax bill’s flaws start with a bad process. No Democrats were allowed any input on the legislation, Kennedy says, drawing a contrast with the Affordable Care Act. President Obama’s signature legislation was shaped by months of public hearings and debate, while President Trump’s tax bill was written in secret. Democrats accepted “dozens and dozens” of Republican amendments to the ACA, he says, begging for bipartisanship. GOP leaders made no such efforts, including in the bill provisions – notably the repeal of the deduction for state and local taxes – that seem designed to punish states that vote for Democrats.
The House passed the bill without a single Democratic vote, and Kennedy’s not optimistic that it can be stopped in the Senate.
Kennedy came to Congress in 2013 determined to be an effective legislator, not a partisan bomb-thrower. He wanted to build the kind of relationships across the aisle that helped make his great-uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, such an effective lawmaker. His famous name made that difficult – some House Republicans didn’t want to be photographed with him, even at a softball game, he told me at the time, lest it upset GOP supporters back home. But he has persevered.
“I’ve got some very good friends here who are Republicans,” he says. He supports their issues when there’s no good reason not to. He has worked with them on low-profile legislation where there’s common ground, like efforts to encourage advanced manufacturing skills and opportunities. He worked with Rep. Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican, to fend off a threat to the ability of websites like TripAdvisor – headquartered in Kennedy’s district – to post negative consumer reviews.
“I think that passed unanimously,” he says. But on the big issues, the ones managed by party leaders, friendship doesn’t come into play. “Just because we’re friends, I’m not going to vote for this tax bill, and they don’t expect me to.”
Americans of all political stripes are angry and frustrated with national politics, he says. He shares their frustration, and tries to put it in perspective. “Democracy is messy,” Kennedy says. “It is a big, loud, noisy place, and we want it to be a big, loud, noisy place.”
He points to a photo on the office wall of him and his wife with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. That’s where Lewis was nearly beaten to death while marching for voting rights long before Kennedy, 37, was born. Lewis is “the most optimistic guy in Congress,” Kennedy says.
“As frustrated as I might be at the moment, there’s nothing I’ve gone through in my time here that could compare to the frustrations Mr. Lewis must have seen over the course of his life,” Kennedy says. “If he can still be optimistic given the long view of what he’s been through, then it’s worth taking a breath and saying ‘we will get through this.’”