The Interview: Joe Kennedy III

The U.S. representative is fed up with gun violence and can’t understand why “compromise” is a dirty word in DC. But before the Camelot scion can change Capitol Hill, he needs to win in November.

You’re a new dad. How steep has the learning curve been?

Oh my God [laughs]. Your life now revolves around a little thing the size of a football that decides when you’re going to sleep, when you’re going to get up, when you’re going to work, and what you’re going to do. And to the extent that you were in charge beforehand, you certainly aren’t anymore.

When asked by Oprah Winfrey if he had considered a run at politics, JFK Jr. said, “There is this great weight of expectation and anticipation.” Did you feel that great weight?

I grew up around politics. My dad was in office. It was something that interested me in college. But I think politics is a unique field in that you have to put yourself out there in a very public way for the entire world to see. People think my family pushed me into running for office. The person who pushed me most not to run for office was my father. He said, “If you don’t want to do this, it is going to be an absolutely brutal experience for you. So make sure that this is something that you yourself want to do and not some sort of invented idea of obligation.” And that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

What are your views on legalizing recreational marijuana?

I don’t think marijuana should be legalized. If we’re going to say marijuana is a medicine, it needs to be treated like a medicine and regulated like a medicine. But when we look at full-on legalization, the potential danger that marijuana poses particularly to adolescents—I’m not convinced.

After the shooting at an Orlando nightclub, you participated in the Congressional sit-in around gun violence. Why?

This violence has to stop. We have tried calling for votes, writing letters, chasing members—everything we can to try to get Republicans to do something to address gun violence—and it hasn’t worked. We spent all those efforts and we still can’t get a vote on the House floor. I give an awful lot of credit to Representatives Katherine Clark [of Massachusetts] and John Lewis [of Georgia], true giants that are still in the House of Representatives, for trying something different to focus our colleagues’ attention on the fact that people across the country are calling for the government to do something. People are dying and Congress actually can do something about that.

Ten years ago you ran a successful reelection campaign for your uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy. Are you shocked by the way the political system has gone off the rails since then?

I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted that it would have degraded as fast as it has. And I think that’s a shame. Some of my uncle’s closest friends in the Senate were Republicans, and he went out of his way to work with them. That didn’t mean he shied away from areas of disagreement—he was a strong, forceful voice for the country. But it did mean you could question somebody’s judgment without questioning their character or integrity.

Why is it no longer that way?

The confluence of some Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United and others, that have allowed for unlimited campaign expenditures to basically elevate a voice that ends up creating a litmus test for politicians saying, “You’re either with us or against us.” Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you are creating a polarized climate. “Compromise” isn’t supposed to be a dirty word. It is, in fact, how representative democracy works.

Forget the big national issues dominating the presidential race—immigration, gun control, LGBTQ rights, and so on. What are the core issues that define the Fourth District?

People in this country believe that every single person, regardless of your station in life—where you’re born, what family you’re born into—deserves a real shot to make the most out of what you got. There are ways that we, as a society, the laws that we write and the contracts we build, can try to actually increase people’s ability to reap the reward from their own potential. But we put barriers in front of them.

Is that easy for you to say, though, given your pedigree?

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my life, luckier than almost anybody on this planet. And whenever I ran into challenges, my parents did everything they could so that I could maximize my own potential. I had access to great schools and assistance and everything else I needed in order to be where I am today. I’ve been a beneficiary of serving in the Peace Corps, where you realize that some folks, no matter how hard they try, they’re not going to make it in a place where there isn’t consistent electricity, let alone access to educational opportunities. I have a pretty strong moral obligation just to say, “That ain’t right.” And you have a pretty strong economic argument to make that if the world’s going to get more competitive, you want the people with the most talent occupying the toughest positions to guide our businesses, communities, and country. And if that talent happens to manifest in a young minority child in the inner city that can’t get access to educational opportunities because we’ve constructed barriers to those, then we as a society lose out. Not just that young child. And we need to see what we can do to tear those down and actually foster and nurture that potential.

Your district spans from affluent Wellesley to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Fall River. How do you spur economic development in those areas?

There are a couple of different challenges in communities across the country that are still struggling to shake off the last recession. One is the large-scale infrastructure problems—access to good transportation networks and good transportation corridors. Two is good schools. We’re trying to attract upwardly mobile middle-class families to move into a community; moms and dads will do an awful lot to make sure their kids get access to a good school. A good school system is what attracts talent and a tax base to a community.

In five words or less, what’s the biggest shortcoming of your first two terms as a U.S. representative?

An economy that works for everyone. That’s six words.

In five words or less, what’s the biggest accomplishment of your first two terms?

Fighting for an economy that works for everyone [said while counting on his fingers].


Chris Sweeney Chris Sweeney, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine csweeney@bostonmagazine.com