Minutes after Ted Kennedy Jr. was sworn in to his first term as a Connecticut state senator, he turned around to a Republican lawmaker sitting behind him during the ceremony.
“Kevin,” Kennedy said to Kevin Kelly, a third-term staunch Republican and former law school classmate, “you are the ranking member on aging, and we should sit down and see what we can do together. I have a few ideas.”
Within two weeks they met. Kennedy asked questions, helped come up with goals, and discussed the tactics involved with bills on health care price transparency and community-based care. But for the most part he let Kelly lead, even though he was in the minority party. Kelly has been working on these issues for years as an attorney.
It was the first time Kelly ever had a Democrat who wasn’t on his committee seek him out to work on legislation together.
“Some of my Republican colleagues may point out that I am working with a Kennedy on this, but we are working on something that is a no-brainer on what both parties can agree on,” Kelly says. “You have to respect how he is going about things here.”
As the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate opens, a lot of the focus will be on the lessons educators teach about the Senate’s history and how bills are debated before becoming law. As the fourth-longest serving US senator ever, Ted Kennedy shaped much of that history. However, in Kennedy’s son, now just three months into being called Senator Kennedy himself, there are small ways in which students can see a living example of his father’s style of service: focused on relationships, crafting legislation with members from the other party, and always paying attention to constituent service.
“I think the lessons that my father imparted on me were many, but in terms of political philosophy it was really standing up for the underdog,” Kennedy says. “He could really empathize with people and really dedicated his life toward social justice and economic justice. I also take with me his approach to governing, which was very much consensus building and taking the time to develop personal relationships with people. He felt that before you ask someone to do something for you, you better get to know that someone first.”
That explains why days after being named the Senate chairman for the Joint Environmental Committee, he was sitting at the Twin Pines Diner in East Haven with his House counterpart James Albis. Kennedy is 53 and Albis is 30. But Kennedy had no problem deferring to Albis, who is in his third term in the Legislature.
“It was very weird, I am not going to lie,” says Albis, recalling the meeting. “I met him before, but in my first time actually sitting down and working with him, I thought he was very down to earth and had a great sense of humor. He also dives deep into issues, and you can tell he has done his homework.”
Now they talk at least once a day.
Kennedy easily won his first term in November with 57 percent of the vote in his heavily Democratic district in southwestern Connecticut. In the closing weeks of the contest, he was criticized for using a campaign finance loophole to partially fund his run, but it did not scare off voters.
He is the second of Kennedy’s sons to serve in office. His brother, Patrick, at age 21 was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives before serving nine terms in the US House.
At the State House, Ted Kennedy Jr. seems to be taking the same advice his father reportedly gave Hillary Clinton when she entered the US Senate from New York: A famous last name won’t excuse you from hard work. So, the advice went, immerse yourself in the issues you care about, understand your colleagues, and make friendships in both parties.
Connecticut state Representative Craig Miner, who serves as the top Republican on the Environmental Committee, sees this as the model Kennedy could be following. “He doesn’t carry himself around here as a Kennedy, but more of a guy serious about doing the work,” Miner says.
Still, that doesn’t mean that his presence isn’t obsessively followed in the capital.
“Sure, I will admit I am a bit star-struck,” says Marilyn Moore, the Senate Democratic whip from Bridgeport. “But he is great to work with, he actually knows the issues involved, and you know he is going places.”
When and where Kennedy goes from here is a regular topic of conversation among the state’s political class. After he gave a moving speech at a memorial service for his father, some called for him to move to Massachusetts to run in the special election for his father’s US Senate seat. The conventional wisdom is that he will stay in the state Senate until Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat, retires from the US House seat that she has held for 25 years. Others contend he could jump into the race for governor in 2018, if Democrat Dannel Malloy doesn’t seek a third term.
Inside Kennedy’s spare office overlooking an interstate, there is a framed newspaper clipping. A gift from his brother for his swearing-in ceremony, it’s a picture of 3-year-old Ted Jr. reaching up to kiss his father, who was leaning over to meet him.
“Obviously I followed a little of a different path,” Kennedy says about running for office later in life and being the first Kennedy to do it in the Nutmeg State. “Eventually I decided to run for public office myself because I saw how much my father enjoyed public life and the satisfaction that he derived from being able to people-solve really important problems in their personal lives and address important public policy issues. He loved his job, and that kind of inspires me as well.”