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US representative returns Kennedy presence to politics

Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III greeted people at the Seven Hills Foundation’s new facility in Milford. Seven Hills offers a program for those with developmental disabilities.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III greeted people at the Seven Hills Foundation’s new facility in Milford. Seven Hills offers a program for those with developmental disabilities.

WASHINGTON — He glances down the hallway to his left, takes three steps to the right and, with a smile, spins back left.

It’s another wrong turn for Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democrat of Massachusetts, who was raised among political royalty but is just another lost freshman on Capitol Hill six weeks after taking office. His family served in Washington for most of the past six decades, but this Kennedy exits elevators on the wrong floor, struggles to locate bathrooms, and has yet to make many friends.

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‘‘It’s kind of that freshman hazing ritual where nobody really will tell you where you are,’’ Kennedy, 32, said on a recent walk to the Capitol. ‘‘It was actually yesterday where I made it over from my office through the underground tunnels and actually popped up where I thought I was going to pop up in the Capitol. First time. I was very proud of myself.’’

Indeed, carrying the weight of his family name and a self-deprecating sense of humor, he is living in relative obscurity as he eases the Kennedy brand back into national politics. It was a brand without a face following the 2011 retirement of his troubled cousin, Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, whose departure created the family’s first extended absence from elective office since John F. Kennedy became a congressman in 1947.

The boy-faced Joe Kennedy III, a redhead with little political experience, is quietly bringing the name back.

He has no entourage. He shies away from national media interviews. He introduces himself simply as ‘‘Joe.’’ And there is little sign of entitlement when he talks about a new career in public service.

‘‘This has gotta be on my own,’’ says Kennedy, a former state prosecutor and Peace Corps volunteer. ‘‘People have got to get to know me, they gotta get to know who I am, what I stand for, what my values are. And I recognize that takes time.’’

The Kennedy label evokes intrigue just as it stirs whispers of scandal, death, and elitism. Patrick Kennedy left office after struggles with substance abuse and mental health. Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s legacy is marred by the 1969 car accident on Chappaquiddick Island that killed a woman.

The young Kennedy flashes his family’s youthful good looks, ease with people and prosecutorial wit. But he also has an “aw-shucks” manner at times.

‘‘He’s a little in awe of where he is already, which is the best kind of representative to be,’’ said Stephanie Cutter, a senior aide for President Obama’s campaign who had worked for Ted Kennedy.

Despite his lack of experience, Joe Kennedy III easily won his general election last fall with more than 60 percent of the vote.

He comes to Congress in the seat previously held by Democrat Barney Frank with a passionate belief in the power of good government and modest expectations as freshman member of the minority party. He says little about long-term goals, instead focusing on bridging the political divide and helping constituents at home.

In particular, he cites an opportunity to work with Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Committee, in addition to protecting research and development on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. He hopes this is the beginning of a long career in public service.

‘‘As long as I feel like I can continue to contribute — and if I get the support of the people that I’m representing — I hope to be able to. . . . I am enjoying this,” Kennedy said.

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