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Massachusetts Freshman Brings Kennedys Back To Capitol Hill

Joseph Kennedy III, son of former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II and grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy, delivers his victory speech on Nov. 6 in Newton, Mass.
Bizuayehu Tesfaye

Last year marked the first time in more than six decades that there was no Kennedy in elected office in the nation's capital.

But that gap ends this week with the inauguration of Rep.-elect Joseph Kennedy III of Massachusetts. The son of former Rep. Joe Kennedy and the grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy was elected by a 2-1 margin in his first run for office.

There's little denying that Kennedy's election was about more than just him.

At a recent orientation for newly elected members of Congress at Harvard University, there were plenty of folks hoping to make a name for themselves — and then there was Kennedy.

"Oh! I know who you are!" said a woman meeting the new congressman. "You look so much like, obviously, your granddad, but also Ted Kennedy."

That kind of recognition was frustrating for Sean Bielat, the Republican trounced by Kennedy.

"I definitely saw that ... how people reacted to the fact that they were talking to a Kennedy," Bielat says.

He says the 32-year-old Kennedy got by with little scrutiny and remains a bit of an unknown.

"The case here is what you see is what you want to see," Bielat says. "And for many people, it's the continuation of Camelot, it's the continuation of the Kennedy legacy and legend."

On The Campaign Trail

For his part, Kennedy — a tall redhead with a chiseled jaw and freckles — seems to take it all in stride. He says running for political office was not a lifelong goal, but dawned on him while he was working as an assistant prosecutor.

"You'd spend a couple days on trial and, win or lose, you'd come back to your desk and you'd find 10 more of the cases that you just tried," he says. "At a certain point you say, if I'm really trying to solve this problem, we have to address some of these issues about why these cases are starting in the first place."

That coincided with a rare open congressional seat, and Kennedy jumped in. While many observers took a Kennedy win for granted, the candidate ran like an underdog, shaking hands at train stations and mastering the local nitty-gritty.

"He knew all the individual projects that we had worked on in Attleboro," says Rep. Jim McGovern, who's assigned to mentor the freshman congressman. "He did his homework, you know. He's got a great name, but he got elected because of the way he ran his campaign."

McGovern says Kennedy doesn't really need a mentor. "I think very much in the tradition of his father and his grandfather and his uncles, I think he will make an incredible mark on Congress."

School Days

Kennedy says his priorities will be reducing the debt and deficit, boosting the economy, and immigration reform. Those who know him expect him to be more of a workhorse than a showhorse.

"He was never about his name at all," says Rob Leith, Kennedy's high school English teacher. He says Kennedy was always charismatic, and that both he and his twin brother, Matt, were well-behaved and smart.

"I know that a lot of the more famous Kennedys are known for their academic and personal difficulties going through adolescence," Leith says. "Joe was not a wild child whatsoever. I would say he's pretty squeaky clean."

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz tells a similar story of the eager redhead he had in his front row: "Students all had their names in front of them, and he just had 'Joe.' I had no idea he was a member of the Kennedy family and I just kept calling him Joe."

Dershowitz figured it out months later, when Kennedy came to his office for career advice.

He was a good student, Dershowitz says, not intimidated even by the Socratic method.

"One of the women sitting in that class mocked him at one point for volunteering to answer a very difficult serious of questions I was asking," he recalls. "She razzed him and she's now his wife."

'Let Me Do My Job'

Kennedy is known for his discipline and sticking to the script. His former boss, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone, recalls one rare occasion when Kennedy let his guard down as he was dogged by a reporter on his way into court.

"He was hustling around [and] for just that one moment lost the discipline with the media and he said, 'Dude, I'm just trying to do my job.' And, you know, that's Joe — dude, just let me do my job."

Kennedy says he knows all the attention is a double-edged sword. But he says he's not going to Washington just to lie low.

The country needs leadership, he says. But he adds that, as a freshman, he knows he has a lot to learn.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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