WASHINGTON — The congressman introduced himself as Joe — just Joe. As the newly elected House members were herded from a group photo shoot on the Capitol steps to an orientation breakfast, he congratulated his new colleagues, asked about their previous jobs, their families, and tried to blend in.
But any aura of “average Joe” disappeared when the redheaded young man with the toothy smile and chiseled jaw was stopped by a Capitol visitor assistant.
“It’s good to have a Kennedy back in Congress,” said the elderly gentleman, holding the door open.
Joseph P. Kennedy III’s victory in his first bid for office last week marks the return of the political dynasty that had served continuously in Congress from 1947 until Patrick J. Kennedy retired last year.
Kennedy, a former prosecutor, is the grandson of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the son of former US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, and great-nephew of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy.
Here, especially, there is no escape from his lineage. Kennedy — gracious, even proud, when fans of his great-uncles approach him — deftly deflects the attention. He turned to the visitor assistant, asking his name and where he was from.
Richard Nicholson, a 70-year-old retired marketing executive from Holyoke, said he had escorted then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy around campus while an ROTC student at Temple University. He’s been smitten by the Kennedys since — “I was a fan of all of them, top to bottom” — and said Thursday he had to keep himself from snapping a picture of the young Kennedy to show to his wife.
Instead, Nicholson shook Kennedy’s hand and wished him luck.
“Thanks. I’m going to need it,” Kennedy said.
“Oh, you’ll do fine. You got the right gene pool.”
The 32-year-old Kennedy is determined to make his own mark.
While campaigning, he impressed members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation with his work ethic, spending hours shaking hands at train stations, supermarkets, and post offices. He sought their help early on in learning every federally funded project and the economic development goals of the newly reconfigured congressional district, which stretches from the tony enclaves of Brookline and Newton to the working-class cities of Fall River and New Bedford.
“The campaign he just ran showed he understands both the heady expectations that come with his family’s proud legacy, but that he also understands that he’s measured by how hard he works, and how connected he is to the people of his district,” said Senator John Kerry, who praised Kennedy for taking nothing for granted.
Representative Jim McGovern, whom the House Democratic leadership has assigned to be Kennedy’s mentor, said his family has always admired the Kennedys. A ceramic plate featuring Jack and Jackie Kennedy hung in the hallway of his childhood home. “I’m glad there’s a Kennedy back here in Congress,” he said. “But I’m telling you, that’s not why he won.”
“He leans over backwards so no one would think he’s trading on his name,” said Representative Barney Frank, whose Fourth District seat Kennedy will fill upon Frank’s retirement in January. “During his campaign, he acted as if he were in the closest possible race, going door to door, even when he was in no danger of losing.”
His national prominence, however, means Kennedy can expect other members to ask him to appear at their district events or pose for photographs to impress their constituents, Frank said.
“His family name is there in a good way,” Frank said. “He will be able to do a lot of favors for colleagues, and that will enhance his influence. By accommodating them, he gains some points and will have an easier time getting something out of other members to help us.”
During orientation this week for new members of Congress, Kennedy kept a low profile amid the flurry of meetings, cocktail receptions, and mundane tasks like getting a congressional ID badge. He preferred to talk to his peers about his time in the Peace Corps or his upcoming wedding rather than dwell on his family legacy.
He skipped the annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award ceremony, held in an opulent marble-columned room named after his family, so he could sit through an orientation briefing covering the nuts and bolts of serving in the House.
And as many times over the years as he’s roamed the marble halls of Congress, Kennedy gamely toured the Capitol with his colleagues, pronouncing it “always something special.” He was especially excited to walk into the House chambers and see the names of current members on the wall when Representative Steny Hoyer turned on the voting machine.
“It’s one of the moments where it all starts to sink in what an absolute honor and privilege it is to represent your fellow citizens in Congress,” Kennedy said during an interview at a Washington Starbucks.
He hesitated to ruminate on any pressure that comes with being the first in his generation to hold public office.
“I am blessed to be here with a group of colleagues,” Kennedy said. “It’s an enormous responsibility to do this right, and I am excited for that responsibility.”
When pressed again, he nodded and smiled, too polite not to acknowledge the question but too guarded to answer it. He leaned forward on the tiny round table. His campaign manager tapped away on his iPhone.
“My approach is the same as any other new member,” Kennedy said. “Ask questions and get as much advice as you can.”
Kennedy joins a seasoned delegation, several of whom have served with his father and great-uncle. He and newly elected Senator Elizabeth Warren, Kennedy’s former Harvard Law professor, were welcomed to the Hill at a meeting Wednesday evening in Representative Edward Markey’s office.
“He comes from a political dynasty but he himself is a political dynamo,” Markey said in an interview. “The Kennedy family is probably the single largest inspirational influence on Democrats in the United States for the last 50 years. Having Joe Kennedy will add a magical quality to our delegation and to Congress.”