CHICAGO — Chris Kennedy bares his teeth when he gets worked up, which was what happened in an interview when he described some of the outrage he says pushed him to the vanguard of a Kennedy family comeback in American politics.
“That’s treasonous. That’s treasonous,” Kennedy said, citing the FBI’s investigation of possible connections between President Trump’s campaign and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“If that happened, and if he touched any part of it, that’s treason. And I think you go to jail for treason,” said Kennedy, whose blue eyes, curly hair, and square face come directly from his father, the late Robert F. Kennedy.
This is the red meat that Chris Kennedy, the eighth of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, hopes the Democratic base wants as he launches his 2018 bid for governor in his adopted Illinois. He’s part of a new wave of Kennedys returning to the family business of national political leadership and using Trump as their foil.
His cousin Ted Kennedy Jr., son of the late Massachusetts senator, is mulling his own 2018 gubernatorial run in Connecticut, where he’s a member of the state Senate. Then there’s Joe Kennedy III, the third-term Massachusetts congressman, grabbing the national spotlight to help defeat Trump’s health care plan — prompting big questions about his next move.
They’re trying to stage a family comeback for one of the most famous names in politics at a time when voters just rejected political elites, and as dynasties on the political left and right crumbled.
History has not been kind to the descendants of the founding brothers of the Kennedy clan — John, Robert, and Edward — when it comes to ascending to statewide office, to the Senate or a governorship. Several have publicly pondered such a step up, but backed off in the end. One who tried — Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a daughter of Robert Kennedy — stumbled badly in her bid to be governor of Maryland.
But, in the current climate, the spotlight is finding the Kennedy hopefuls again. And members of the clan say the reasons are clear: There’s a Republican in the White House and a vacuum of power in the Democratic party.
“When President Obama was president, he got all the attention,” said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was Maryland’s lieutenant governor from 1995 to 2003. “People are looking at other young Democratic stars who are coming up, and they are looking at our family.”
This surprises some because the Kennedy family’s political might has faded significantly in the past decade. The last round of Kennedys to take up the family torch has all exited public life.
“I thought it was over for that generation. I’m surprised that they’re coming forward,” said Laurence Leamer, a biographer who has written three books on Kennedy family. “The Kennedys have lost that invincibility. Young politicians are not going to be afraid to go up against them.”
What distinguishes this recent Kennedy crop, he said, is that Chris and Ted had other careers before splashing into politics. Chris is a developer in Chicago, and Ted has a law degree from the University of Connecticut and focuses on health care issues at the Stamford offices of the law firm Epstein Becker Green.
“All of them paid their dues,” Leamer said. “So some people who don’t like Kennedys can vote for them despite their names and not because of it.”
Several other Kennedys are in the public eye but do not appear hungry for public office. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Chris Kennedy’s older brother, has made headlines for his warnings about unproven side effects of vaccines and his frequent discussions on the topic with Trump, earning him scorn from the mainstream medical community.
Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the slain President John F. Kennedy, is now home from a stint as ambassador to Japan during the Obama years. She is often the subject of speculation about a Senate run from New York, but family members say a campaign is highly unlikely.
Chris Kennedy, 53, is putting his famous last name front and center in his gubernatorial bid, where the word “Kennedy” polls well, according to his team, particularly among older voters who tend to come out in an Illinois Democratic primary.
His campaign signs, with the name Kennedy blazing across the placards, use a design similar to his father’s 1968 presidential posters but with an Illinois twist: Instead of blue and red stripes, Chris Kennedy uses the University of Illinois football team colors, blue and orange.
At a recent fund-raiser hosted by Kennedy’s in-laws in Winnetka, Ill., about 20 miles north of Chicago, Kennedy offered his own immigrant family history as an example of what Americans want, but too often haven’t been able to obtain.
“They’re thunderstruck by what’s happened to them,” said Chris Kennedy, standing in the living room, addressing about 40 people. “They feel like the promise of this country, the notion that any of them can make it, can arrive here like the Kennedys did and rise from rags to riches, that that promise, which they refer to as the American dream, that that promise has not been kept. And they’re raging mad.”
Kennedy will face what’s likely to be a crowded field for the Democratic nomination that could include another famous name: Chicago billionaire J.B. Pritzker. The winner of the March 2018 primary will take on sitting Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, a wealthy Chicago financier-turned-politician. Democrats expect it to be one of the most expensive and competitive general election races in 2018.
Kennedy has hemmed and hawed about running in the past.
“I’m part of a wave of people who have a renewed interest in politics after the November election,” he said, in an interview at the office he keeps in the Merchandise Mart, the office tower that Joseph Kennedy, the family patriarch, purchased in 1945. “Apathy is dead. People aren’t going to sit on the sidelines anymore. They want full engagement.”
Even in Massachusetts, where politicos follow the Kennedys closely, Chris Kennedy isn’t well known. After graduating from Boston College, where he met his wife, Sheila, he moved to her home state of Illinois and got a job at Archer Daniels Midland, a food processing company. He next earned an MBA at Northwestern and then climbed the ladder at the other (nonpolitical) family business, the Merchandise Mart.
The Kennedy family sold that and several other properties in 1998 for $625 million, according to the Chicago Tribune. Chris Kennedy continued working there until 2011. Now, he’s in the midst of constructing luxury apartment towers in downtown Chicago.
His office is full of family memorabilia, including a pair of chairs used during the Kennedy-Nixon debates that now provide seating for staff meetings. He keeps a Kennedy family tree taped to the interior of a closet door. He assigned each family member a number that he described as a “Dewey decimal system for the Kennedys.”
The idea of multiple Kennedys seeking higher office at the same time doesn’t faze Chris Kennedy at all; it’s happened in other election cycles, including 1994 when there were five Kennedys on the ballot — so many that someone made up campaign-style buttons that read: “Vote for the Kennedy Nearest You.”
“It’s not like we’ve got some big strategic planning document that’s multigenerational in nature,” said Chris Kennedy. “But we do think about what’s right and wrong, and we do talk about politics and history and government and current events at the breakfast table.”
The family shares lists of donors and poaches from one another’s friends during gatherings at Hyannis Port, the family’s Cape Cod compound. “You know there’s this notion of ‘to whom much is given, much is expected?’ ” Kennedy asked, with a little grin. “Many of our donors and our friends think too much is expected from those who have given.”
The help extends to manpower: Joe Kennedy III said that he’s always benefited from a crew of cousins, including Chris Kennedy’s four children, willing to volunteer on his campaigns, going door to door in the Fourth Congressional District, which includes parts of Brookline and Wellesley and extends south to Fall River.
Joe Kennedy III, who is just 36, spent his first two terms in Congress trying not to remind people he’s a Kennedy, though his red, wavy hair and the unruly Superman curl on his forehead make the lineage hard to miss.
Other members of the state delegation, however, sucked up a good share of the national headlines Kennedy passed up. Harvard grad and Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton is a media darling, appearing everywhere from The New York Times to “This American Life.” Katherine Clark drove the national conversation for a few days when she led a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives over a gun control issue.
Kennedy finally had his moment on March 9, when he read a 73-second speech during a committee debate on Trump’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The day prior, House Speaker Paul Ryan had labeled the White House-backed health measure — that would have dropped health insurance for 24 million people — an act of mercy.
“With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read a different Scripture,” Joe Kennedy said, and went through a list of ways he believes the legislation would hurt the poor and the needy. “This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”
The speech, which he said was written quickly with his staff after he heard Ryan’s comments on a cable news broadcast, was viewed more than 10 million times online.
“I’m as surprised as you are,” Kennedy said. He said he was “struck” by Speaker Ryan’s comments as “a really callous way of talking about how government treats people in a time of need.”
Part of the reason the comments were so powerful, though, was the historic echo. Joe Kennedy was standing up to fight the repeal of a law that his great-uncle Ted had worked so hard to pass in the final months of his life.
The congressman still doesn’t like to talk about being a Kennedy, and when he does, like other members of the clan, he emphasizes the populist roots of their political lineage.
"I’m proud of what my family has done, and the record they have,” he said in a recent interview. “That record stands very, very squarely with people who have struggled to have their voices heard at the highest echelons of government."
Massachusetts politicos, along with members of Kennedy’s own family, believe that Joe Kennedy will be in Congress for quite a while. And several said he’s the one most likely to re-plant the Kennedy flag at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue one day.
“Joe Kennedy III is super impressive and incredibly talented. Much more talented than his father,” said Scott Stossel, who edits The Atlantic magazine and wrote a biography of Sargent Shriver, Joe’s great uncle. “Fifteen years from now, I would not be surprised to see him in the Oval Office.”
The path forward for Ted Kennedy Jr. is less clear.
He declined to be interviewed for this story, ignoring multiple direct requests. His spokesman, Dan Doyle, explained that the two-term state senator was too busy with district business to reply over the course of three weeks.
Several members of the Kennedy clan confirmed, however, that he’s considering a gubernatorial run. “A number of people have talked to him about him running for governor,” said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend about her cousin Teddy Jr. “He’s looking at that race very seriously.”
There’s one complication: The sitting Connecticut governor, Dannel Malloy, is a Democrat. His approval ratings have cratered, prompting widespread speculation that he won’t seek a third term.
Ted Kennedy recently met with Malloy and told the governor that he wanted to launch a campaign for the seat, but would do so only if the governor doesn’t run again, according to one Connecticut source familiar with the conversation. Malloy’s office declined to comment.
He was elected to the Connecticut state Senate in 2014 at the age of 53, and Kennedy’s district includes a handful of seaside towns near New Haven. He’s kept a fairly low profile, mostly working on environmental bills. Kennedy isn’t a powerhouse in Connecticut politics — though on the state level, some say, the bench is thin.
Amid local speculation about his gubernatorial ambitions, Kennedy issued a classic political nondenial to The Connecticut Post. “If other opportunities to serve were to arise, I would consider them,” he said.