Max Kennedy is untested and inexperienced, yet he’s considered the leading candidate to replace Congressman Joe Moakley — the second-most-powerful Bay Stater in Washington, after Max’s uncle Ted
BY SETH GITELL
He’s met with Congressman Joe Moakley (who announced in February that he has incurable cancer and will not run for re-election), purchased a home in Moakley’s district, and reportedly even lined up Newsweek scribe Matt Bai to chronicle his campaign. The pundits have anointed Max the favorite: in the Boston Globe, Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz dubbed Kennedy the “prohibitive front-runner” and claimed that his rumored candidacy may even be scaring off potential challengers (hello, former state representative Jim Brett and current state senator Marian Walsh). In other words, a Kennedy with no experience in the electoral arena seems to want to run for office and — based on his hints alone — has already been named the guy to beat. Where have we heard this before?
Try JFK’s run for Congress in 1946, Ted Kennedy’s run for the Senate in 1962, Joe Kennedy’s run for Congress in 1986, and Patrick Kennedy’s run for Congress in 1994. Call it the Team Kennedy field strategy for success. In the early years it consisted of three parts brilliant packaging (a previously little-known lightweight is made to look like an electoral heavyweight) and two parts networking (powerful relatives and their politically connected allies parachute in to help). Team Kennedy tweaked the formula for Joe and Patrick’s congressional runs, adding four parts nostalgia (subtly raising the almost incomprehensible sacrifices the Kennedy family has made to American politics) and five parts celebrity (in which Hollywood luminaries under sway of the nostalgia factor lend their mugs to the cause).
“Max is following the script,” says Brown University professor Darrell West, who chronicled Patrick Kennedy’s career in Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power (Prentice Hall, 2000).
But will it work this time around?
MOAKLEY’S SEAT will be a difficult test for Team Kennedy. If Max runs, he’ll be the least experienced Kennedy to run for office in New England since the family patriarch pushed his youngest son Ted, then 30, to run for the Senate seat vacated when Ted’s older brother Jack was elected president. Even 29-year-old Jack, a skinny, wet-behind-the-ears Navy veteran, had a more impressive résumé in 1946, when his father shopped him around the congressional district then represented by James Michael Curley, than Max has now. (Curley, under indictment for mail fraud, had decided he wanted to return to his true love, the mayor’s race, and declined a run for re-election to Congress.)
It’s not that Max has done nothing. He worked from 1992 to 1995 as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. He edited a book about his father, Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy (Harcourt Brace, 1998). And he founded a little-known local environmental nonprofit, the Watershed Institute. He is also well educated — a graduate of Andover, Harvard, and the University of Virginia School of Law.
But compare that with his uncle Jack’s military experience, his brother Joe’s experience as founder and head of Citizens Energy (an agency started during the energy crisis of the early 1980s that made — and continues to make — a tangible difference in the lives of Boston’s poor), and his cousin Patrick’s six-year stint as a state legislator before running for Congress. Even for a Kennedy, it seems, the 36-year-old Max is inexperienced (though he did run Uncle Ted’s re-election campaign against Jack E. Robinson and Carla Howell in 2000). Packaging him will be difficult. But just you wait for Team Kennedy to work its magic, says one Democratic observer: “They’ll give him the gravitas he doesn’t have. They will weave together the threads of his life to make him into a serious candidate.”
To begin with, they’ll shelter Max until he gets some campaigning under his belt. Filmmaker Josh Seftel, who made Taking on the Kennedys, a documentary (available on videotape) about Patrick’s 1994 run for Congress, recalls: “When Patrick ran, they kind of kept him under wraps. They handled him carefully because he was inexperienced. They were protecting him.” Seftel and most other members of the press got no access to Kennedy. The campaign worked almost exclusively with select members of the Rhode Island media. Which is, of course, another oft-used Kennedy technique: finding friends in the media, from Teddy White to William Manchester to Ben Bradlee to Matt Bai.
As Max gets seasoning behind the scenes, Team Kennedy will stress his three years working for the Philadelphia DA. “He does have a record of having been in the prosecutor’s office,” points out one Democratic observer. “He has a record on crime.”
Better yet, they’ll emphasize his work with the Boston College–based Watershed Institute. It’s not nearly as well known as Citizens Energy. But it will be, once a skilled media consultant like Bob Shrum puts it through the ad mill. (Shrum was a speechwriter in Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential bid and his press secretary from 1980 to 1984; he also worked as a political consultant for President Bill Clinton and was heavily involved in Al Gore’s presidential campaign.)
According to the group’s Web site, the mission of the Watershed Institute is “to promote the stewardship of urban ecosystems through discovery, learning and empowerment.” It all sounds kind of crunchy, but the bulk of its work lies in two areas: educating students about the environment and helping urban communities deal with environmental problems. Conveniently for Max, the Watershed Institute has actually worked with four schools within the Ninth Congressional District — in Needham, Dorchester, South Boston, and West Roxbury.
“People in the communities south of Boston are interested in open space,” says one local Democrat. “Max’s background is the environment.” And another Democratic insider says: “The environment is a hot issue with Bush and the Republicans. [Emphasizing Watershed] allows him to fit in with a current news package long before it was fashionable.” Once Max’s campaign swings into gear, expect to see the Globe trot out a puffy spread on the Watershed Institute, followed by a blizzard of ads in the district about Max’s work with the organization.