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Mass. needs new blood in politics — but must it be a Kennedy?

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  January 6, 2012 03:51 PM

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This morning's report that Joseph P. Kennedy III may run Barney Frank's congressional seat will hearten Democrats who've been waiting for a new generation of Kennedys to electrify Massachusetts politics. But the Camelot era recedes ever deeper into the past, the political dynasty's relevance to modern Massachusetts will necessarily fade. And it'll be the Commonwealth's loss if Kennedy's last name keeps other worthy candidates from taking him on.

At 31, Joseph Kennedy III has a resume that's intriguing but not, on its own, terms field-clearing: A Stanford and Harvard Law grad, he's served in the Peace Corps and worked most recently as a prosecutor. But he's on the front page today because he's the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and great-nephew of John F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy — all of whom made the family name synonymous with a certain brand of liberal idealism. The name also confers a fundraising advantage and access to a braintrust of Kennedy family confidants. But does this guarantee an ability to deliver for constituents? Former congressmen Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts and Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island shared Ted Kennedy's last name, but never gained a reputation for the legislative finesse that was his hallmark.

If Kennedy runs, he'll be the prohibitive favorite — a fact that underscores a dysfunctional aspect of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth has generally has only offered two routes to Democrats who want to represent the state in Washington: be born a Kennedy; or spend years politely cozying up to the local and state party establishments, and to the interest groups that glom on to them. In statewide races, this has often backfired for the Democrats, who can be seen as too beholden to special interests. It's not a coincidence that State House Democratic stalwarts like former treasurer Shannon O'Brien and former attorney general Tom Riley fared poorly in races for governor.

Local Democrats need to look more broadly, and in a more meritocratic way, to bring in new blood. If Joseph Kennedy III does run, he deserves a fair hearing. But voters should also do him and themselves a huge favor — by scrutinizing him as they would any other candidate.

Twitter: @danteramos

AP Photo/Elise Amendola: Former Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, left, hugs his son, Joseph P. Kennedy III, after introducing him during a campaign event for Martha Coakley in 2010.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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