Senator Kennedy Made Me Do This

09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some who are born to privilege spend their lives blind to the hardships of others. A few, like Senator Kennedy, become giants because they reach beyond their good fortune to insist that all should be able to count on opportunity and economic security.

Senator Kennedy understood the blessings of service in his own life and expanded opportunities like AmeriCorps for millions of others. His career was marked by a decades-long commitment to help those with the least political power -- the poor, children, immigrants, and the uninsured were some of the many he championed. Looking back on his legislative achievements, his work for those least likely to command the assistance of expensive lobbyists is remarkable. In 1965, he sponsored legislation to drop immigration quotas that discriminated against non-white immigrants. In 1968, he shepherded legislation for bilingual education. In 1990, he co-sponsored the Ryan White CARE Act to provide health care for HIV/AIDS patients. He was a champion of civil rights, women's rights, for legislation to assist the poor, and for increases in the minimum wage.

Especially now, when we see the power of the insurance and finance industries working its way in Congress, it should be clear to all that Senator Kennedy's constant focus on the needs of the most vulnerable is a model of what leaders should do. His abiding concern led to an unrivaled record of accomplishment for the poor and vulnerable.

Senator Kennedy's record demonstrates that with unswerving priorities, determination and savvy attention to detail, it is possible to make progress even in unlikely times. He teaches us not to give up, but to keep reaching out to persuade those with needed votes or power. He worked with Senator Hatch (R-UT) to provide health care to millions of children through the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) in 1997, despite a Republican majority in Congress not seen as hospitable to expanded health insurance.

So that is what Senator Kennedy will make me do -- redouble concrete acts to reach out, persuade, seek opportunities to make real improvements in the lives of the poor, vulnerable, and uninsured. Extending health coverage for all Americans was the work of his life, as has been frequently quoted. It must be our work, too. Raising the minimum wage, helping those out of work, improving the lives of families with children, reducing poverty -- these were all personal commitments for Senator Kennedy; they must be ours, too.

More than 30 years ago, I worked for the Massachusetts chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, and had to speak at a dinner at which Senator Kennedy made the featured presentation. It was the largest crowd I had ever addressed. My uncle, with an unorthodox approach to calming my nerves, predicted that my "knees would be knocking together like Jewish maracas." He was right. The lesson, then as now, is that following in the footsteps and joining in the fight of a genuine leader is the right path to take. We will badly miss Senator Kennedy's leadership. But all of us can do more to follow in his path.