A new Kennedy enters the world of American politics

His great uncle was JFK and his grandfather was the former US Attorney General but Congressman Joseph Patrick III is relying on more than just his name to put emigrant issues on the map. He talks to Robert Mulhern.

A new Kennedy enters the world of American politics

HE wasn’t quite sure if he’d end up in politics. His father Joe Kennedy II served in the House of Representatives — he used to say it was all about timing and Joseph junior was never in any rush.

But growing up Joseph Patrick Kennedy III regularly found himself captured by family dinner debates.

He willingly participated when his uncle Senator Ted Kennedy would batt about the headlines of the day with anybody who was game.

“There was plenty of disagreement. Everybody was accustomed to talking about the headlines of the day and what they meant for our country,” he says.

But the grandson of former US attorney general Robert Kennedy, whose great uncle was president John F Kennedy, had eyes on university, a law degree and life experience beyond the politics of his name. And that’s what he did, until his time came around.

It’s Tuesday afternoon in Newton located about seven miles west of Boston. The spring sunshine wedges open the door of Terry O’Reilly’s Irish bar across the street from the Newton Centre T- stop.

It’s the kind of slow afternoon that allows the taxi office operator to double as driver and the journey to Crafts Street is a tree-lined parade of beautiful old houses adorned with American flags.

In the Congressman’s Suite the stars and stripes fly too.

Kennedy explains his Uncle Teddy used to be able to look out from his office from the top of the JFK Federal building in Massachusetts “and see the golden staircase where his ancestors made their first steps.”

It sounds cliche but the sentiment is unapologetic in terms of the great strides made by Irish emigrants.

“My own story is the story of my family hundreds of years later,” he says.

But days after running the Boston Marathon for the One Fund Kennedy’s steps appear uncomfortable.

He winces then reaches across to delivers a vice-grip of a handshake.

“Great day. But I wasn’t clocking the miles correctly. My reader would tell me I’d done a mile when I was a couple of hundred yards short. It was a long race!”

In 2012, Kennedy took more than 60% of the vote in the Primary of his constituency in Brookline but his style to date has been rated as cautious by some.

With the heritage that follows his name it’s a wonder a slow march is possible, particularly with features that bear a striking resemblance to those of his grandfather Bobby.

“It becomes very quickly about the work and not who you are,” he says.

After college the Congressman cut his teeth on missions with Irish Aid in East Timor and later with the Peace Corps.

“My Uncle Teddy would talk about his trips to Ireland — would show video of his trips there and President Kennedy’s trips before him. The connection is something we are rightfully proud of and taught to respect.”

Kennedy describes himself as: “either Irish or American, nobody has mistaken me for anything else.”

But he conscious of making too much of the connection. Today he describes his relationship and the relationship of the Kennedys with Ireland as “complex”.

He believes the wider Irish experience is a people who have boxed above their weight, but what about the tendency to brand the Irish story abroad as successful? “There are going to be some doing very well and some that are struggling away,” he replies.

That expression could be applied to the campaign to address emigration reform.

“What to do with 11 or 12 million people without proper documentation?” he asks. “Are you going to let people who broke the law get special treatment over those who have done this the legal way?”

He describes the issue as a “hot-button topic” and one he was surprised to hear the Taoiseach Enda Kenny address on a visit to the White House.

“To get up and give a speech on emigration reform on Capitol Hill — there are not many politicians I’ve met who would have the ability or the courage. To be able to do it in a way that was respectful and poignant but also reminding every lawmaker this was not just about emigrants coming south of the border, but that this was about millions of others — Irish as a subset of that.

“He did it in an artful way to get the message across.”

He was impressed with Kenny but beyond politics there’s an earthy respect for the Irish everyman built on personal experience.

“Back in 2006/07 Irish Aid had its big mission in East Timor and there’s a bus driver from Ireland — Timor Tom — who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The guy was a bus driver...from Ireland — an amazing guy,” he says.

But even if he was without the name would his heritage still carry weight in Massachusetts?

“Absolutely, absolutely,” he says. “The Irish vote is still important and he cites the rise of new Boston mayor Marty Walsh, whose parents hail from Connemara.

“Whether it was my dad running a non-profit or my Uncle Bobby running non-profits in environmentalism — there were so many other ways they found to contribute.

“That was really the message — find you own way to contribute.”

It’s a long-game with lots of hard yards, kind of like the marathon he has just done.

‘So, how did you do?’ The Congressman hesitates and then breaks a smile.

“Not as well as I hoped,” he says slightly defeated. “Four hours 2mins... but we got there.”

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