Aside from his last name, there is nothing overtly Kennedy-esque about Joe Kennedy. In fact, the 35-year-old congressman has all the hallmarks of a nerd, with his curly mop of orange hair and a mumbling conversation style a world away from the stately bravado of his bloodline. Over coffee and eggs in Newton, however, he reveals a side of himself every bit as ambitious and polished as his ancestors. With much speculation that Senator Elizabeth Warren could join a potential Hillary Clinton White House, it may be only a matter of time before we have another Senator Kennedy in Washington.
You’ve said if Senator Elizabeth Warren’s seat ever opens up, you’d consider running for it. Is that still your plan?
[Laughs.] I literally don’t even know what I’m going to be doing for lunch today. I’ve got a six-month-old daughter who is awesome. My wife and I are in the midst of this crazy, amazing chaos of being first-time parents. If Senator Warren’s seat comes up, I don’t know, it’s something I’ll take a look at. But at this point it’s not my focus and it’s not going to be my focus. I want to enjoy my daughter, enjoy some time with my wife, enjoy the job I have and try to do my best at it.
In 2014 you ran unopposed. Now you’re up against a little-known Republican named David Rosa, whose platform focuses on term limits and immigration. Are you surprised he emerged to challenge you?
No. People feel like they’ve got ideas to offer and they want to make a case about those kinds of ideas. When I ran my uncle’s [Senator Ted Kennedy’s] last campaign, in 2006, he always said, “You run for a position; you don’t run against anybody.” An election is your opportunity to go out there and make a case to the voters about why you should serve them, or continue to serve them, as a representative. You don’t go out there and say, “Hey, I’m better than the other guy.”
On his campaign’s Facebook page, Rosa recently shared a meme that says, “Americans Have the Right to Insult Islam.” Thoughts?
To make Donald Trump seem moderate is a pretty impressive feat, but I think Mr. Rosa has done so.
How do you digest America’s obsession with the Kennedys?
My family has been in the public eye, obviously, for a long time. The message that President Kennedy is known for, challenging every person to make a contribution to our society, still resonates with Democrats and Republicans. I am no longer surprised by how many of my Republican colleagues in Washington say they were motivated to get into public service because of President Kennedy and my grandfather [Robert Kennedy].
Did you get a sneak peek at the new documentary I Am JFK Jr.: A Tribute to a Good Man?
[Shakes his head no.]
Does the attention on your family ever get old?
Successes and shortcomings have obviously been chronicled in the public—that comes with the territory. But I think what often gets overlooked, and understandably so, is when people talk about the Kennedy family, they focus more on the “Kennedy” and less on the “family.” It is a big family, it’s an amazing family, and it’s an amazing group of people and kids. What often gets lost in books and films and everything is the fact that they were moms and dads, grandparents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. They all were. Every person can relate to that. The photos on the walls are not moments of history, they’re moments with family. And I think that’s the part that often gets lost.
What’s the first website you go to in the morning?
Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Herald, Wall Street Journal. Normally, in that order. The last one I check at night is usually BuzzFeed, because I need to laugh at something.
Who is the last person you texted?
Why did you name your dog Banjo?
He’s a rescue dog from Tennessee. So my wife was trying to come up with names that work. There were a couple names that I vetoed. I didn’t think they were going to be entirely appropriate. So Banjo is what we settled on.
Do you get offended when someone calls you a ginger?
I get that a lot actually [laughs]. No. But I did get offended when someone sent me the Facebook sign-up for “Kick a Ginger Day.” So, you know, I just figure it’s because everybody’s jealous.
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].
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