WASHINGTON — The decision by party leaders to tap Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III to deliver the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address next week prompted swift and varied reactions Friday, with Republicans labeling him “rich” and “boring” and Democrats hailing him as a president in the making.
The announcement, first reported by the Globe late Thursday night, immediately thrust the 37-year-old, three-term congressman from Brookline into the national spotlight more squarely than he has ever been before.
But Kennedy, who will face high expectations as a member of a family known for uplifting and inspiring oratory, continued to insist in his aw-shucks manner that he is firmly focused on his current job.
“This is one of those weird jobs where the moment you win an election and start serving in public office, everybody wants to know what comes next,” Kennedy said in an interview shortly before news of his State of the Union role came to light.
“I don’t give a whole lot of thought or credence to questions about what comes on next, what goes on next,” he added. “My life is busy enough at the moment that I don’t even really know where I’m having lunch today.”
Kennedy will deliver the high-profile speech from Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, with students and other community members in the audience. As Democrats try to craft an economic message that can help win back working-class voters, Kennedy said that he hopes to put the focus on “a resilient and proud city” and on a school that is “an innovative and inspiring model.”
The job will put him on national television as the face of the Democratic Party and the voice of chief Trump critic at an extraordinary moment in the country’s politics. For many Americans, it will be their first introduction to the latest Kennedy on the political scene.
“Congressman Kennedy is a relentless fighter for working Americans,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said in a press release announcing the selection. “While President Trump has consistently broken his promises to the middle class, Congressman Kennedy profoundly understands the challenges facing hard-working men and women across the country.”
Kennedy’s speech will be followed by a Spanish-language response delivered by Elizabeth Guzman, the first Hispanic female immigrant elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.
Although the selection of Kennedy thrilled many rank-and-file Democratic voters, other observers expressed dismay that the party went with a rich white male, the equivalent of Democratic royalty, at a political moment that in many ways is being driven by the activism of women and minorities.
“No offense to Rep. Joe Kennedy (who seems like a decent enough Democrat), but this is a tone-deaf decision and an extraordinary waste of a valuable opportunity,” tweeted Brandon Friedman, a former Obama administration spokesman.
Republicans also pounced.
“Meet Joe Kennedy, The Rich, Boring Pelosi Ally Giving The Democratic SOTU Response,” read the headline on a memo sent around Friday by America Rising, a Republican opposition research super PAC. The group focused on how often Kennedy votes with Pelosi and noted that, with a net worth of nearly $19 million, he is the 22nd richest member of Congress (left unmentioned was that Trump frequently boasts that he is a billionaire).
In Kennedy, Democrats are looking toward a young, telegenic liberal from bright-blue Massachusetts — not to mention a famous political dynasty — to articulate the deep and increasingly bitter objections many Americans have to the current president.
It’s a sharp contrast to the party’s choice last year, when Democrats tapped the septuagenarian former governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, who delivered a low-key, bipartisan appeal for Trump to preserve the Affordable Care Act.
The swing to Kennedy signals that Democrats are less interested in bipartisan appeals than in capitalizing on the wave of resistance rising ever higher in their base against the president, as well as the dissatisfaction independents feel with Trump.
Kennedy’s speech is not likely to be a red-hot anti-Trump screed, however. He is expected to make an appeal to the middle- and working-class voters that Trump promised to take care of but who Democrats argue have been largely cast aside by the president’s agenda.
But delivering a speech following the grandiosity of the president of the United States speaking to a packed House chamber can also be a challenging, thankless task that has often caused bumps in political careers, rather than made them.
Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana had an awkward walk down a long hallway in 2009, while a parched Senator Marco Rubio of Florida lunged to the left for a mini water bottle in 2013. Beshear last year sat in a Kentucky diner as more than a dozen stoic residents sat silently behind him, while Senator Tim Kaine’s distracting bouncing eyebrow was the most memorable element of his 2006 response.
Kennedy has kept a fairly low profile for much of his five years in the House, seemingly going out of his way to avoid capitalizing on his famous last name. In 2014, he told party leaders that he did not want to be chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But his profile has risen since Trump’s election, and Democrats have found their base clamoring for acts and statements of resistance against the president. Some of the issues that Trump has pushed — repealing the Affordable Care Act, limiting the rights of gay and transgender Americans, and cracking down on the number of immigrants and refugees entering the United States — are the ones that most animate Kennedy.
He will be speaking at a crucial moment, as Trump begins his second year in office and as Democrats look to make big gains in the upcoming midterm elections. Washington has been riven by divisions in recent weeks, with an impasse leading to a brief government shutdown.
While Kennedy has not been the most prominent Democratic voice on a lot of issues, running to the cable news cameras far less often than his colleagues, he has shown himself capable of capturing the national conversation. His speeches criticizing Trump and the Republican agenda on a range of issues have gone viral. His breakthrough moment was a minutelong, middle-of-the-night speech criticizing House Speaker Paul Ryan for calling the GOP bill repealing former President Barack Obama’s signature health law an “act of mercy.”
Kennedy charged that the GOP bill “is not an act of mercy. It’s an act of malice.” The video garnered more than 10 million views on Facebook.
The origins of responding to the president’s annual address go back to the 18th century, but the modern response dates to 1966 when top Republican leaders — Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Gerald Ford — gave an address responding to Lyndon Johnson.
Kennedy would be the first Massachusetts politician to deliver the State of the Union response since then-House speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, who took part in a 1985 infomercial of sorts produced by the Democrats. It was hosted by a young up-and-coming Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.