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Congressman Joe Kennedy III talks with an aide seated at the desk in his new congressional office in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 3, 2013. (photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)
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Updated: Monday, 07 Jan 2013, 11:43 AM EST
Published : Monday, 07 Jan 2013, 10:58 AM EST
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WPRI) - Hours before Joe Kennedy III's swearing-in last week, his brand-new congressional office looked like a college dorm room on freshman move-in day.
The walls were still empty, with framed photos on the floor. The only papers on Kennedy's desk were W-2 tax forms he needed to fill out as a new employee. There were Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins banners hanging up, but one of them was still shrink-wrapped.
Kennedy, a tall 32-year-old with a shock of red hair, was a bundle of excited energy during a half-hour interview as he waited to take the oath of office. But he was also much more relaxed than the newcomer who kicked off his campaign last February before a horde of reporters at Morin's in Attleboro.
"It's a bit surreal," Kennedy told WPRI.com.
Kennedy can be excused for feeling a little overwhelmed. Over the past 11 months the Stanford and Harvard Law graduate got engaged, ran for Congress and won, got married, went on his honeymoon and finally took office as a congressman. (He got a dog, too.) "It was not by design, but it did end up that way," he said, smiling.
Kennedy and his new wife, Lauren Birchfield, dated for about six years before getting married last month in Southern California and then leaving for a short honeymoon in Maui. "The wedding was spectacular," he said. "The honeymoon was probably a little bit shorter than either of us would have liked."
Kennedy wasn't always sure he'd go into politics and follow in the footsteps of his father, former Massachusetts congressman Joseph Kennedy II, and his grandfather, the late former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. At 32, he's two years younger than his dad was when he entered the House, but three years behind his granduncle John F. Kennedy and seven years behind his cousin Patrick Kennedy, the former Rhode Island congressman.
Kennedy studied engineering at Stanford with thoughts of a business career, then served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. After earning his law degree he worked as a prosecutor in Massachusetts with the district attorneys for Cape Cod and the Islands and then for Middlesex County.
"That experience was very formative to me," Kennedy said. "You see a side of society that most people, certainly myself included, don't see every day, and it all of a sudden becomes the world you're living in 12 or 15 hours a day."
Kennedy said he began to think about other ways of solving the problems he saw as a prosecutor, not all of which seemed best dealt with by "locking them up and throwing away the key."
"You would spend a day or two days trying a case, and you come back to your desk and you find a stack of files that is basically the same case that you spent two days trying," he said. "And so you sit back down and say, if your goal is to really solve the problem, prosecuting that next case in front of you isn't necessarily going to solve the problem. How do you decrease that stack from two feet high to a foot high? And that leads you into the policy discussions."
Kennedy was trying a case at the Cambridge District Court when Congressman Barney Frank announced he would retire, creating an open seat in the 4th District. "When I got back to my desk, my phone had like 15 messages," he recalled. "I thought something terrible had happened."
He called a family member and was told about Frank's retirement: "I just said, 'Oh, too bad for him, but' - and then I realized that's why people were calling." He talked with family and friends and soon decided to enter the race, somewhat to his soon-to-be-fiancée's surprise.
Being a Kennedy is different, of course; he's probably the only first-time congressional candidate who was profiled by both "CBS This Morning" and the "Today" show. Although he grew up around fame, he said it was still an adjustment to be at the center of attention instead of off to the sides. Even the number of reporters at his Morin's kickoff event was a surprise: "I was a bit taken aback to see that many people," he said.
Kennedy wasn't forced to take a vote on last week's fiscal cliff compromise, but argued the deal was necessary. "The country wanted it, the country needed it, the world needed it," he said. But he didn't agree with all the details, and is concerned that it only included a two-month postponement of mandatory spending cuts now set for March.
Kennedy is one of the first congressmen from the huge millennial generation, and he said he sees five major issues that the country needs to tackle to position itself for the next few decades: education, health care costs, infrastructure, energy and fiscal policy.
"People aren't going to agree on everything in those areas, but you can agree on 80% of it," he said. "You can disagree on some areas at the fringes. But that's really where I think there's room for compromise - a lot of the partisanship then just starts to fall to the side, because the long term is the long term and the right answer is the right answer."
"The most successful people and organizations that I know, their philosophy was to ask, where are we now, and what's the world going to look like 30 years down the road and how do I play to that?" he added.
Kennedy spent the last year traveling up and down the newly redrawn 4th District, which stretches from Brookline down to Fall River. He leaned forward in his chair enthusiastically as he described the "incredibly diverse" area, with its knowledge-based companies in the Boston suburbs as well as economically troubled cities like Taunton and Fall River to the south.
Kennedy said he will emphasize federal programs to boost companies engaged in life sciences and other high-tech enterprises, both to help the companies near Boston and to boost new projects like the redevelopment of Taunton's Myles Standish Industrial Park and UMass Dartmouth's biopark.
He is also a big advocate for spending on education, particularly early childhood education, work force development and skills training, and initiatives to make college more affordable. "As you talk to folks, there's some threads that unite everybody - they all want a better economy, they all want economic opportunity, they all want a better world for their kids," he said.
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