NEWTON, Mass. — The family name may help generate a steady flow of campaign cash and assure key endorsements for Joseph Kennedy III's bid for the U.S. House. But it may take more than just the Kennedy mystique to deliver the congressional district to the 31-year-old who was raised on politics but has never before run for office.
The son of former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy toured several communities in Massachusetts' 4th Congressional District on Thursday after formally entering the race for the seat now held by Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat who is retiring after more than three decades in Congress. Kennedy's announcement had been a foregone conclusion since last month, when he formed an exploratory committee, resigned his job as a prosecutor in Middlesex County and moved from outside the district in Cambridge to a new home in Brookline, within the district.
Kennedy's pedigree as a son of one of the nation's most powerful and prominent political families is sure to give him an early edge in terms of visibility, money and organization, all of which are vital to winning campaigns. But his challenge will be to capitalize on his family's name while establishing his own political identity.
It's a reality that does not appear lost on the candidate.
"I'm very proud of my family's record of public service to the Commonwealth and the country," Kennedy said after greeting commuters at a train station in Newton. "This campaign – any campaign – is going to be about the issues and about who goes out and earns it."
Sean Bielat – who lost to Frank two years ago – and former state mental health commissioner Elizabeth Childs are seeking the Republican nomination in the district, which stretches from the upscale Boston suburbs of Newton and Brookline to the blue-collar cities of Fall River and Taunton in southeastern Massachusetts. Three lesser-known Democrats are also running.
Mike Shea, a veteran Massachusetts Democratic consultant, said voters would be looking beyond mere bloodlines.
"The family name and connections give him a podium to stand on from the beginning," said Shea, who is not working for Kennedy. "But voters in his district are smart and well-informed. They will take a hard look at how he performs and then make a judgment."
The Massachusetts Democratic establishment has wasted little time lining up behind Kennedy's fledgling candidacy. In a recent TV interview, Frank said he was enthused about Kennedy's candidacy and expected him to win. Kennedy also received endorsements from two major labor unions even before his official announcement.
Kennedy is tapping into a wide network of family friends, longtime supporters and wealthy donors. There is also a small army of well-connected former staffers who worked for his father and his great-uncle, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Already, the young Kennedy has considerable fundraising punch. Peter Maroney, a prominent Democratic fundraiser who was national finance director for Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid, has come aboard as the campaign's finance chairman. Kennedy will be in Washington next week for a series of fundraising events, beginning Feb. 22 on what would have been the late Sen. Kennedy's 80th birthday. Several of the hosts and organizers for the events run firms that do lobbying and governmental affairs consulting.
But while the Kennedy name undoubtedly still carries considerable political clout, it may no longer be the immovable object it once was in Massachusetts.
"He's got to perform to expectations, despite all his advantages," Shea said. "The proof will be in the pudding."
Republicans point to Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown's surprising victory in the special election for the seat Edward Kennedy held for nearly a half century until his death in 2009. Many of the communities in the 4th District are home to large numbers of independent voters who backed Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley.
Kennedy was in mostly friendly territory during his initial campaign stop in Newton. Coatless on a chilly February morning, Kennedy chatted with commuters waiting for an inbound trolley to Boston, and later greeted patrons at a nearby diner. But not every potential voter was impressed.
"I just think the Kennedy name is not enough to elect somebody," said Mary Thomits, a retired teacher from Brookline who said she "shocked" Kennedy by telling him that she did not think he was qualified to run.
Thomits said she was an independent but planned to vote for Bielat, and considered Kennedy an opportunist for moving into the district and "riding on his name."
Others, like Newton resident Mike Grossman, said he welcomed Kennedy's candidacy. An independent who has voted for Republicans and Democrats, Grossman said the Kennedy family had a "legacy" that was positive for the state.
Kennedy defended his qualifications for office, pointing to his experience as a volunteer in the Peace Corps, a legal aid attorney and a prosecutor as evidence of his concern for the disenfranchised. He also promised to take nothing for granted.
"You've got to go out every day and talk to people, listen to their concerns, shake more hands, knock on more doors, take more phone calls," he said.
Associated Press Writer Andrew Miga in Washington contributed to this report.