SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Outgoing Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III insists he didn’t make a mistake by mounting an audacious primary challenge against incumbent U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, while acknowledging he was taken aback by the level of hostility toward him on the left.
In his first sit-down television interview since he lost the Sept. 1 primary, Kennedy told 12 News he ran because he wanted voters to have an alternative to Markey, who had been on Capitol Hill for decades and faced persistent criticism for spending too little time at home in Massachusetts.
“I don’t regret anything about that race,” Kennedy said. “I don’t regret my decision to enter it. I don’t regret the campaign that we ran. I obviously wish the outcome were different.” He reiterated a campaign-trail theme that his motivation was a belief too few lawmakers are tackling “major, structural challenges” the United States faces today.
Primary challenges against incumbents are generally anathema in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, leaving many stunned when Kennedy decided to give up a safe seat in the 4th Congressional District to pick an intraparty battle with Markey. Critics cast him as entitled and presumptuous, and at times he struggled to articulate a clear rationale for voters to dump the incumbent.
Kennedy is adamant that he never believed it would be a cakewalk to beat Markey, who in the end defeated Kennedy by 10 points before going on to win a new six-year term on Nov. 3.
“I always knew it was going to be a tough race,” Kennedy said. “From the moment I got in it, our own internal numbers and everything else showed that it was going to be a tight race. And anytime you challenge an incumbent senator — an incumbent of any party — it’s going to be a challenge. You’re not just challenging that individual, you’re challenging a system that has led to a status quo.”
But, he said, “If we’re going to do the big hard things that are necessary in order to deliver on the change that so many want, then I think new and different voices have to be at that table.”
“That being said, I made my pitch. We fell short. I support Senator Markey,” he added.
Kennedy sustained a final black eye from the campaign last month, when his advisers disclosed that his campaign had improperly spent $1.5 million in contributions that were earmarked only for the general election. Kennedy has since repaid the money out of his own pocket; his net worth was estimated at over $46 million in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“I found out about improper spending a couple days after the campaign ended,” Kennedy said. “We took immediate action to remedy it. We’ve come into full compliance. And we’ll make sure that we do everything we can to stay that way.”
Pressed about whether he had wondered where the money was coming from as cash ran low near the end of the race, he said, “I became aware of the issues, again, a couple days after the primary campaign ended. And we’ve done everything we can to come into compliance and self-reported the issues there, and look forward to obviously making sure everything’s done right and moving on.”
‘A little less time on an airplane’
Now the 40-year-old is preparing to become a private citizen again on Jan. 3 for the first time in eight years; he is scheduled to give his farewell speech on the House floor Wednesday. He gave little indication of what he plans to do next, beyond noting that he has two young children — neither of whom were born when he was first elected — and he wants to spend more time with them.
Asked if he’d run for office again, Kennedy said, “I’m not sure. … If those opportunities come up again, we’ll evaluate them when they do. I wouldn’t say never to anything.”
Kennedy’s name has been floated for a potential Biden administration appointment, and he acknowledged he has had “a bunch of conversations” with members of the president-elect’s transition team. But he sounded cool to any job that would require him to spend significant time in Washington.
“I like my home, and Massachusetts is home,” he said. “It’s where Lauren and I are raising our family. And I’m hopeful that this next chapter in my life means a little less time on an airplane than the last eight years.”
Kennedy had a gilded path into Congress, facing only token opposition when he entered the 4th Congressional District race in 2012 following the retirement of fellow Democrat Barney Frank, and he was easily re-elected three times. He remained popular in the southern part of his district, winning 64% of the Bristol County vote in the Senate primary despite getting only 45% statewide.
Asked about his biggest accomplishment in the House, Kennedy cited his advocacy on health care and LGBTQ rights, as well as his efforts to help the more economically challenged southern part of his district, which includes Fall River, Taunton and the Attleboros.
“Representing the 4th District the past eight years has been the honor of my professional life,” he said, adding, “There are parts of the job I’m really going to miss. There are parts of the job that I won’t.”
Kennedy expressed frustration with the Boston-centric priorities of many Massachusetts leaders at the state and federal level, saying the southeastern part of the state “100% gets overlooked.”
Too many other Bay State leaders, he said, “continue to focus on the issues that plague Boston and not realize that communities like Fall River, like New Bedford, like Taunton and the Attleboros provide opportunity for growth that can strengthen Boston, not just take away resources from it. It is that shift in thinking that is so needed and necessary.”
Kennedy and fellow Congressman David Cicilline, who represents the district adjoining Kennedy’s in Rhode Island, passed a bill in July that would establish a Southern New England Regional Commission that would receive federal funding to promote cross-border economic development.
“Federal policy hasn’t adapted to strengthen those connections,” he said.
‘I was surprised at the level of vitriol’
Looking back at the primary, Kennedy and his advisers — not to mention many pundits — clearly failed to foresee the depth of passionate support a septuagenarian congressional staple like Markey would generate from the Democratic Party’s rising progressive wing. At the core of the senator’s appeal was his status as Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal with New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who cut an ad for Markey.
Kennedy remains stung by the level of animosity many progressives voiced about him.
“For somebody that is by any stretch of the definition of the word a very strong progressive … I was surprised at the level of vitriol and, not even the critiques, but the attacks that came at me, that came at my family, a number of members of my family,” he said.
He added, “If the idea of raising your hand and saying, hey, you know what, I’m going to put myself out there for evaluation in front of the public to be able to be tested and to put forth ideas, and if you get met with sustained and systematic attacks and threats — I’m not so sure that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”
Still, Kennedy declined to take sides in a war of words among his progressive and moderate colleagues over who is to blame for House Democrats’ unexpected losses on Nov. 3.
Ocasio-Cortez and Pennsylvania Congressman Conor Lamb grabbed attention recently when they gave dueling interviews to The New York Times debating whether the cause was a poor digital strategy, as Ocasio-Cortez suggested, or left-wing lawmakers publicizing policies that are radioactive in swing districts, as Lamb argued.
“I think it’s an oversimplified debate,” Kennedy said, suggesting both are making valid points.
But, he warned, “The moment a Democratic Party says to the folks in rural West Virginia or Kentucky or across the Rust Belt or, by the way, in inner-city Boston or the South Side of Chicago or in Miami, ‘hey, there’s people here that we can’t reach’ — that is the moment we sign our own ticket to the minority in perpetuity.”
Kennedy will be succeeded representing the 4th District by Congressman-elect Jake Auchincloss, a 32-year-old Newton city councilor, who won an expensive and crowded Democratic primary by a percentage point, then went on to easily defeat Republican nominee Julie Hall.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook