In His Own Right: Amid a Pandemic, Joe Kennedy III Turns Heads

By Jeff Robbins

June 16, 2020 5 min read

The inhabitants of Chelsea, Massachusetts, have known tough times for a long time, long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit them hard. Almost half of Chelsea's population consists of recent immigrants, largely from Latin America, and almost 1 in 5 lived below the poverty line even before the virus struck and wiped out the economy. Massachusetts has suffered badly from the coronavirus, and the Chelsea community has suffered worst of all, its densely packed residents infected at the highest rate in the state. "I have been dropping off food boxes for people at their homes during the pandemic and I have seen up to twelve people living in a two bedroom apartment," says Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative. "That's our reality."

Chelsea is not in United States Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III's district. And though Kennedy is running for a Democratic seat in the United States Senate, Chelsea, with its massive immigrant population, has few voters to offer someone in the middle of a Democratic primary battle. But that has not stopped Kennedy, who spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and speaks Spanish fluently, from focusing on Chelsea's plight with an intensity unsurprising to many who have watched Kennedy since his election to Congress in 2012. "When the epidemic hit Chelsea," says Roy Avellaneda, president of the Chelsea City Council, "Joe was right there. He called me up and said 'Hey, I know you're in a tough spot.' He just came in with his team, funneling money to relief organizations, volunteering, preparing food, handing it out."

Kennedy raised $30,000 for food and housing relief for Chelsea, part of more than $100,000 he has raised for pandemic relief throughout Massachusetts since April. But even more importantly, he did what he has come to be known for doing: He showed up whether or not there were any votes in it for him. On Mother's Day, he joined Chelsea City Councilor Judith Garcia in delivering hot meals and gifts to 20 Chelsea mothers who had contracted COVID-19 and were quarantined apart from their families. "It was a small way to let them know our community is with them and praying for their speedy recovery," said Kennedy, who had the satisfaction of seeing the women smile from the windows in their converted motel rooms.

Since his election to Congress, Kennedy has turned heads and made admirers out of cynics, in part because he so consistently shows up where politicians do not ordinarily go. Drawn to the hurting and the marginalized, he is wont to spend time at shelters, food banks, group homes and drug rehabilitation centers — everywhere, it seems, where likely voters aren't. Early on in his relationship with Kennedy, Avellaneda concluded that the young man identified viscerally with those shunted aside. "When I talked to him," Avellaneda recalls, "I could see all the adrenaline that he wants to fight with is there." There is adrenaline, but there is also anger. "Our system can't continue to tell people 'Hey, just try a little harder or just wait a little longer'," says Kennedy, his voice steely, "or, 'Eventually we're going to get to you.'"

Ten weeks before the Massachusetts primary pitting the young congressman against incumbent Sen. Edward Markey, Kennedy leads in the polls. This is less a knock on Markey than a reflection of the work Kennedy has done. Markey's supporters have tried to turn Kennedy's famous last name against him, accusing him of being "a progressive in name only" and "entitled." The first charge is ridiculous and the second unjust. Serious and thoughtful, Kennedy has conducted himself in a way that seems anything but entitled. There is no doubt that his last name helped launch his political career. But there is also no doubt that he is where he is because of what he is.

Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

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