THE tourists taking pictures of John Kennedy’s relatively modest birthplace in Brookline on Presidents’ Day had not heard that the former president’s great-nephew had just entered the family business. But it seemed that everyone else in Massachusetts and beyond knew that the Kennedy family’s break from politics was over. Joe Kennedy III announced via YouTube on February 15th that he was entering the race for the open 4th congressional district seat. Even before he had formally announced his entry, he led his main Republican rival by two-to-one in a University of Massachusetts Lowell/Boston Herald poll. And he had won the endorsement of the state’s largest labour organisation.
The 31-year-old former prosecutor has inherited the Kennedy smile and the voluminous Kennedy hair (his is red; he looks more Irish than his forefathers did). But winning the seat, which stretches from the Rhode Island border to the outskirts of Boston, is not going to be easy. It is no longer the same district which for three decades voted by mostly wide margins for Barney Frank, recently the irascible head of the House Financial Services Committee. Redistricting has reconfigured the historically blue district to include conservative strongholds, while losing New Bedford, a Democratic bastion. Indeed Mr. Frank decided not to seek re-election, in part, because he reckoned that the 325,000 new constituents would require an extra $1.5m-$2m in fund-raising.
Raising money will not be a problem for Mr Kennedy. The name alone is bound to fill seats at fund-raisers. Elsewhere it may put people off, as it did in New York, when Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, explored running for the Senate three years ago. Cynical New Yorkers resented her apparent sense of entitlement and her lack of political experience. But things are different in Massachusetts. Even though a third of voters think the Kennedys have too much influence in Bay State politics, a hefty 73% of them, including Republicans, view the family favourably. Voters are astute. They know a freshman representative at the bottom of Capital Hill’s totem pole is more likely to get a call returned if his name is Kennedy. They want their representatives to stand out, says Scott Ferson, a political consultant and Ted Kennedy’s former press secretary. Mr Frank, who is openly gay, is also notably outspoken, and Ted, Mr Kennedy’s great-uncle, was the liberal lion of the Senate.
And, like the rest of his kin, the political novice knows how to campaign. In less than a week he went twice to Attleboro, which voted for Scott Brown, a Republican, in the election to fill the Senate seat held for 46 years by Ted. He was bred for this. His grandfather was Bobby Kennedy, once attorney-general; his great-uncle was JFK; his father, Joe II, served in Congress for 12 years. Bay State politicos say Joe III is the real deal, and would be a good candidate no matter what his name. So far he is scandal-free, which is a plus for any candidate, especially a Kennedy. Kennedy fatigue may yet rear its head, but it may not matter, says Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University. For many in Massachusetts, voting Kennedy is like dessert addiction: “You swear off chocolate cake, but you keep coming back to it.”