BRANFORD, Conn. — Bruce Wilson Jr. has a problem. It is a problem that can be summed up in three words: Ted Kennedy Jr.
On a perfect summer day at the Branford Festival in June, Wilson, a candidate for Connecticut’s 12th state Senate district, was nibbling on fried dough with his wife under the Republican Party tent as a beaming Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, strode across the green like a king anointed. While onlookers snapped photos on their phones, Governor Dannel Malloy paused to shake Kennedy’s hand. A phalanx of young Kennedy volunteers worked the crowd while others chatted about an upcoming event dubbed Republicans For Kennedy.
Yes, you got that right. “Republicans for Kennedy,” say the red and blue T-shirts.
“I love Ted Kennedy, I just love this man,” exclaimed Carol Gagliardi, who hosted the Republican event for Kennedy. “Everyone thinks this is a stepping stone to the presidency and I hope that it is!”
But if Wilson has a problem in his opponent’s name, so does Kennedy.
The 52-year-old son of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy is running for political office for the first time and finds his legendary political name a double-edged sword. While it brings him instant recognition, it is also inextricably linked to America’s most famous, some say infamous, political family, one rooted in Massachusetts, not Connecticut.
Kennedy is one of a generation of 25 surviving first cousins from six families — descendants of the children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. The members are known as much for their chaotic and sometimes tragic personal lives as their efforts at public service. Those who have run for public office have had mixed results; none has neared the heights of their parents’ generation. Two who openly considered running for federal office, Max and Caroline Kennedy, found the public reaction so rocky they chose not to enter the ring after all.
Kennedy, whose voice so echoes his father’s arch New England tone it sometimes snaps people to attention, looks more like a Kennedy than either of his two siblings. But these days he is all local, all the time.
Ted Kennedy Jr. now treads tentatively onto the political stage he has eschewed for nearly three decades. Though he has been talked up for high-profile offices over the years — including US Senate seats in Connecticut and Massachusetts — he has chosen the bucolic Connecticut district in which he has lived for close to 20 years (total registered voters 61,018) for his first political foray. Neither Kennedy, a health care lawyer, nor Wilson, a businessman, is widely known here. As he travels the district, Kennedy listens patiently to the stories about his father and uncles that voters forever want to share. But he presents himself with determination as a local fellow, firmly a man of the Nutmeg State.
“Hi, I’m Ted Kennedy Jr. from Branford,” Kennedy said, approaching a table at the annual summer Strawberry Festival in Killingworth. “If you have any advice for me, please let me know.” Kennedy, whose voice so echoes his father’s arch New England tone it sometimes snaps people to attention, looks more like a Kennedy than either of his two siblings. But these days he is all local, all the time. He has refused financial contributions from out of state as well as all national media requests. He declined to be interviewed by the Globe, saying, “I really can’t talk. I’m running for local office and I’m talking to local people.”
Wilson, 50, a straight-talking member of the Madison Board of Education, takes it all in stride. A Connecticut native and the retired CEO of a pharmaceutical and manufacturing company, he has cast himself as the candidate best suited to address the region’s financial woes. He has plenty of time to talk. If Kennedy wants to turn down money and media attention, he shrugs, “I’m sure it’s being done for a very calculated reason. What can I say? I am the most un-famous guy there is. I don’t have millions of dollars. I don’t have a famous last name.”
But in the sizzling heat of the summer’s public forums, that name continues to electrify some. On glimpsing Kennedy at the Killingworth festival, Barbara Turnbull, 71, leapt to her feet and snapped photos on her phone, declaring, “I love the Kennedys. I can’t believe it!! I have goosebumps.” And then she posted a photo of herself and the latest Kennedy to seek to join the family business on her Facebook page.
“Me and Ted Kennedy Jr. @ the Killingworth Strawberry Festival. Come on down and meet him.”
Finding his own path
This year’s Cinco de Mayo found Roseann Sdoia and a group of her girlfriends eating chips and salsa on a sun-splashed patio at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. During her short stay there, Sdoia, who was injured at the Marathon bombing and had her right leg amputated above the knee, had seen a steady stream of well-wishers. And so when a hospital staffer asked if she would like to meet Ted Kennedy Jr., she agreed.
Sdoia, 46, knew nothing about Kennedy except that “he was the senator’s son.” And indeed, the broad-shouldered Kennedy who sat down next to her appeared much like his father with his tousled brown hair and gregarious demeanor. After a few minutes’ talk, Kennedy observed that the two of them had much in common as he, too, had lost his right leg above the knee, when he was 12. Sdoia, who was soon to select a prosthetic of her own, asked if she might see his.
“I thought he might pull up his pant leg, but nope,” said Sdoia. “He stood up and started to unbuckle his pants. I thought, ‘Uh-oh. What is going on here?’ Next thing you know, he dropped his pants down to his ankles and showed his leg. We were all shocked for a minute, and then everyone started giggling. He intended it as common relief, to lighten the moment and that is exactly what it did.”
The loss of his leg to bone cancer in 1973 has indelibly shaped Kennedy’s life path. While he has worked for more than two decades as a lawyer specializing in health care and financial issues, he has also served as a lifelong advocate for people with disabilities and has been active in a host of cancer and disability organizations.
Many Americans of a certain age once closely followed the story of the brave Kennedy boy who endured two years of drug treatments before triumphantly returning to his favorite sports, sailing and skiing. The grueling experience forged a deep bond between Kennedy, the middle of three children, and his father. His trials, including his mother’s chronic drinking and his parents’ marital troubles, were detailed in a made-for-TV movie called “The Ted Kennedy Jr. Story” that aired in 1986.
Whether related to his traumatic childhood experience or not, Kennedy strayed from the traditional Kennedy trajectory in Massachusetts at an early age. Reared largely around Washington D.C., where his father joined the US Senate the year after his birth, Kennedy decided to attend Wesleyan University in Connecticut over Harvard University, the alma mater of many Kennedys.
“He wanted to be a Ted at Wesleyan rather than a Kennedy at Harvard,” recalled a friend who knew him at the St. Albans School, an independent boys school in Washington, D.C. “Being a Kennedy at Harvard meant a lot of scrutiny and pressure. We both knew what he was choosing.’’
But moving to Connecticut hardly removed him from the Kennedy orbit. The year after he entered college, Kennedy took a semester off to join his father’s 1980 presidential campaign. Kennedy, then 19, spent months in Iowa often traveling alone and spending the night in strangers’ homes.
“I visited 88 out of 99 towns in Iowa,” Kennedy recalled during a campaign stop in June. “There’re not many people who can say that. I loved it. My father made it fun. Even when people got angry and upset it was fun.”
The experience was nonetheless a harsh political awakening for some of the young Kennedys who participated in the campaign, according to Adam Clymer, the author of “Edward M. Kennedy, A Biography.” Some voters did not hesitate to bad-mouth the elder Kennedy, sometimes viciously.
“A lot of the younger generation who were involved in that campaign saw the brutality of the attacks on Kennedy and that turned them off,” said Clymer. “A lot of them backed off of politics.”
But Ted Jr. was not one of them, at least not right away. One month after he graduated from Wesleyan in 1984, Kennedy was asked to speak at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Then 22, Kennedy spoke movingly of the needs of the disabled, saying, “Disabled people are not unable people.”
The following year his father urged him to consider a run for the seat in Cambridge being vacated by House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr. Kennedy moved to Somerville and attended a handful of political events. In the end, he decided against it and his first cousin Joe Kennedy won the seat.
Ted Kennedy Jr., who paused to speak to the Globe a few times while campaigning, says, “In all honesty, it was something my father thought I should consider. But I never really did. I was young and I thought I should do my own thing.” In resisting his father’s entreaties, Kennedy at times turned to his mother for support, Clymer said, “and Joan would say, ‘If you don’t want to, don’t do it.’ ”
A gentle person who has struggled with alcoholism for many years, Joan Kennedy instilled in her children a humility and sensitivity somewhat at odds with the more competitive Kennedy side of the family. According to some family members, Ted Jr. was particularly attuned to her struggles.
“Ted has a vulnerability to addiction that they both share,” said Tim Shriver, a cousin and the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. “She is his role model in being open and tender and also in being tough enough to live with and survive addiction with a great trust in a higher power. In all honesty, those are not skills that come from the other side of the family.”
Kennedy remained in Boston for several years working for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission on a project designed to expand job opportunities for the disabled. In 1989, he returned to Connecticut and enrolled in a master’s program in forestry at Yale University. But if he had hoped to distance himself from the influence of his famous family, he may have found that nowhere was far enough away.
The list of Kennedy family members who have struggled with drug and alcohol problems is long. In 1991, one more name was added to that list: Ted Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy, who had a reputation for partying in his college years, announced that July he had spent three weeks in an alcohol treatment program, saying the “continued use of alcohol is impairing my ability to achieve the goals I care about.”
Shriver says Kennedy was motivated to quit not by the devastation drugs and alcohol have inflicted on his family but on his growing self-awareness: “He knew his life was out of control.”
Some close to the family believe another factor in Kennedy’s decision to stop drinking was Katherine Gershman, a Yale-trained psychiatrist whom he had been dating for a couple of years and who would eventually become his wife. Shriver, 54, the chairman of the Special Olympics, says Kiki “was a game changer.”
Declining to enter politics
For all the fanfare that follows him, Kennedy by many accounts gives off few airs. During the three decades he has worked on behalf of the disabled, Joyce Bender, chief executive and founder of Bender Consulting Services in Pittsburgh, who has served with Kennedy on the board of American Association of People with Disabilities for more than a decade, says, “Kennedy doesn’t just talk about it or say the right words. He lives this. When he shows up he doesn’t say, “Oh, I’m Ted Kennedy.’ He’s not like that at all. He says, ‘I’m a person with a disability.’ ”
By end of the 1990s, Kennedy had completed his law degree at the University of Connecticut Law School and was working for a New Haven law firm focusing on the issues of health care and regulatory and reimbursement issues. In 2000 he cofounded The Marwood Group, a New York-based health care advisory and financial services firm that employs about 150. Early this year, Kennedy left Marwood to join Epstein Becker & Green, primarily, according to a few close to his campaign, because it has an office in Stamford, Conn.
Kennedy says he has declined to this point to enter politics because he wanted to be present for his children, Kiley and Teddy. Kennedy’s father was often absent fulfilling his Senate responsibilities and tending to the next generation of Kennedys who had lost their own fathers.
“He was the father to everyone in my family,” said Kennedy. “And he had enormous responsibilities in Congress. No one knows better than me the demands of politics. So I really wanted to wait.”
Kennedy, however, has always kept a foot in the political pool. Over the years he has been a supporter of a number of Connecticut Democrats and campaigned on behalf of several family members, including his brother, Patrick, the former Rhode Island congressman. Kennedy campaigned on behalf of President Obama in several states. When then-Senator John Kerry was appointed secretary of state last year, speculation was widespread that he might make a move for his seat. Once again, he demurred.
But then the ground shifted. State Senator Edward Meyer, a five-term Democrat representing the 12th district, announced this spring he would retire. Kennedy’s oldest child will be a junior at Wesleyan, and his son will be a junior at Choate Rosemary Hall. When Meyer, a friend, urged him to run, Ted Kennedy said yes.
He announced his candidacy in a packed auditorium in April at the Blackstone Memorial Library in Branford. As he spoke, a woman stood in the back of the room holding a sign that said, “Finally!!!”
A tough upcoming election
The two candidates for Connecticut’s 12th Senate seat met for the first time on a sunny patch of grass at the Branford Festival, where they exchanged awkward pleasantries.
“He seems like a nice enough guy,” said Wilson. “But let’s get on to the issues.”
Although it is relatively early in the political season, differences between the two candidates have begun to emerge. As chairman of the Madison Board of Education’s policy committee, Wilson is well-versed in educational issues and says his career in business makes him the more experienced of the two in job creation, a significant local issue. “We need more decent paying jobs,’ said Wilson, father of three. “And I don’t mean jobs in big law firms.”
Walking through the district’s public events, Kennedy takes time to explain himself. Posing for selfies with voters on request, he presents himself as a man ready to learn.
“I’m a health care lawyer and I know a great deal about a lot,” he said in Killingworth, laughing it up with a small group eating pancakes. “But there are a lot of issues I don’t know about.”
The district’s political allegiance is unclear given that close to half the voters are unaffiliated. Over the past few decades, the Senate seat has been alternately held by Democrats and Republicans.
“All I know is this is going to be a tough race,” said Joe Mazza, Guilford’s first selectman and a Republican.
Although Kennedy is stressing his local roots, he also invokes the Kennedys who came before him. At his official nomination in Madison in May, he described his father as “my hero,” a man who he said believed “in consensus building and bipartisanship.”
Among those attending were many of the generation who had come of political age while Kennedy’s father and uncles were in office. They listened rapt as the younger Kennedy concluded with a story that his Uncle Jack liked to quote from General Hubert Lyautey, a marshal of France. When Lyautey’s gardener was unwilling to plant a flowering tree because it would take decades to mature, Lyautey told him to plant it immediately, that there was “no time to lose.”
“That was one of my Uncle Jack’s favorite quotes,” said Kennedy. “And as Democrats we know that a strong future means making the necessary investment because in many ways Connecticut has no time to lose.”
For voters now evaluating the race in the 12th District, there is one more small thing to consider. Should Ted Jr. be defeated in the fall, should he decide never to run again, it does not mean an end of the Ted Kennedy line. Kennedy’s son, Edward M. Kennedy III, declared five years ago at the age of 11 that he intends to run for his grandfather’s US Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2044.
“My son is definitely interested in politics,” said Ted Kennedy Jr.