FALL RIVER — Joseph P. Kennedy III, fresh off his primary victory in the Fourth Congressional District, kicked off his general election campaign Saturday with a raucous rally here, where he took on his Republican opponent for the first time.
In a speech before a crowd of more than 100 supporters in an elementary school gymnasium, Kennedy portrayed himself as a champion for middle-class families who are struggling to make ends meet, while he criticized his opponent, Sean Bielat, for seeking to protect the interests of the rich and deep-pocket corporations.
“My opponent will tell you that our seniors, our students, our working men and women must sacrifice more and make do with less,” said Kennedy, a former prosecutor and the son of a former representative. ‘’Well, I believe that middle-class families have sacrificed enough.”
Specifically, Kennedy, 31, said Bielat would support proposals that would make it more difficult for middle-class families to afford college, for seniors to secure retirement benefits, for gay men and women to get married, and for woman to seek abortions.
Bielat, in a phone interview Saturday, brushed off Kennedy’s suggestion that he was more beholden to the rich.
“The irony is pretty clear,” said Bielat, referring to Kennedy’s upbringing. “I grew up in a middle-class family, went to college on my own dime, spent some time in the Marine Corps. . . . Joe Kennedy hasn’t had the opportunity to have the middle-class experience that most of us are having.”
He also said Kennedy misrepresented his views on the issues, relying instead on national Democratic talking points.
Kennedy and Bielat are competing to replace longtime US Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat, who decided not to seek reelection.
Kennedy handily won the Democratic primary on Thursday — capturing about 90 percent of the vote — trouncing his lesser-known opponents, Herb Robinson and Rachel Brown.
Bielat, 37, an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, prevailed in the Republican primary over two candidates as well, Elizabeth Childs and David L. Steinhof, garnering about 70 percent of the vote.
So far, Kennedy has the upper hand going into the general election, both in name recognition and money. Kennedy is the son of Joseph P. Kennedy II who represented the Eighth Congressional District for 12 years and is the grandson of the late Robert Kennedy.
Kennedy’s campaign chest of $1.96 million dwarfs Bielat’s roughly $63,000 cash on hand, according to the most recent fund-raising reports.
Bielat quickly came out swinging at Kennedy shortly after the primary results were announced Thursday night, promising to cast Kennedy as an unqualified upstart who is seeking to slide into Congress on his family’s name.
Kennedy blasted that campaign strategy Saturday, saying Bielat “thinks personal attacks are his only path to victory.”
“He has been going after our campaign for months already,” said Kennedy.
He implored his supporters to counter the personal attacks with civility, asking them to knock on doors to get his campaign’s message out, and to call up old friends.
After the rally, supporters said they felt energized.
“He did an awesome job,” said Bob Dias, 45, a Fall River Democrat. “He speaks from the heart.”James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.