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Joan Vennochi

Why is Joe Kennedy III limiting debates?

His family’s famous entitlement gene is alive and well and thriving in Joseph P. Kennedy III.

The 31-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy — who is seeking his first political office — has agreed to only three debates with Republican challenger Sean Bielat. The two are battling to replace longtime Democratic incumbent US Representative Barney Frank, who is retiring after three decades.

So far, the battle is stacked one way: in Kennedy’s favor. He has the name recognition and fundraising capacity that goes with it. He has nearly $2 million in cash on hand, according to a recent Globe report; Bielat has a meager $63,000.


Kennedy also has the chutzpah to limit direct engagement with Bielat to a bare minimum. He agreed to a Channel 5 WCVB debate on Sept. 30; an Oct. 10 debate in Fall River, hosted by MassINC and CommonWealth Magazine; and an Oct. 15 candidate’s night at Wellesley College, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

“I think the Kennedy camp is banking on the fact that the brand and the mythology of the Kennedy brand is better than the reality,” said Joe Malone, a Republican consultant and former state treasurer. “They’d rather have people draw their own image of what the next Kennedy generation is in their mind, as opposed to what it is in reality.”

Malone knows what it’s like to take on a Kennedy. In 1988, he ran against Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who agreed to only one debate. It took place on a Saturday night, 10 days before voters went to the polls.

Ted Kennedy, at least, was an incumbent running against an unknown 32-year-old Waltham businessman who was making a virgin run for office. Bielat’s opponent isn’t an incumbent; he’s just running like one.

Kennedy said he’s running on his personal resume, not his family name. He’s a graduate of Stanford and Harvard Law School. He spent two years with the Peace Corps and, for a few years, worked as an assistant district attorney in Massachusetts.


But resume alone can’t explain the air of inevitability around his candidacy. That comes from his famous family’s legacy. JFK and Ted Kennedy were his great-uncles. His father, Joe Kennedy II, was a six-term Massachusetts congressman.

Resume alone can’t explain his ability to score press coverage, such as he recently received from the New York Times. A Sept. 12 magazine piece headlined “Keeping Up with the Kennedys,” referenced this anecdote from his days at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School — “a drizzly evening, in which Kennedy, after a school dance, single-handedly endeavored to find another party. Not exactly a profile in courage, but it still left an impression.”

Resume alone also doesn’t explain his appearance at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, where he introduced a video honoring Ted Kennedy, and proclaimed: “Make no mistake, he is here with us this evening. I see him in the passion of our delegates, the character of our candidates, and the causes that unite us.”

Bielat, 37, is a Marine Corps Reserve officer, with a background in business and management consulting. He has degrees from Georgetown, Harvard, and Wharton. He was a big underdog when he ran against Frank in 2010. Yet they still participated in nine debates, including one moderated by a young radio host at a low-wattage station in Norfolk.

In an open letter to Kennedy, Bielat wrote, “You have said on numerous occasions that you’re not running on your name. There are a number of signs though that you are in fact running on your name. Most tellingly, you have held almost no events open to the public, done almost no televised interviews, and appeared on no radio shows. I was hoping that you might use debates as a way to introduce yourself to the public for the first time.”

Who can resist writing about debates and Kennedys without mentioning the famous line that came out of Ted Kennedy’s first run for Senate in 1962? During it, Edward J. McCormack Jr. famously declared that if his opponent’s name was Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, his candidacy “would be a joke.”

This debate about debates isn’t about a candidacy that’s a joke. It’s about respect for voters, process, and democracy.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at
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