SOMERSET — It was Sean Bielat’s umpteenth town hall, this one in a small meeting room at a Quality Inn off Interstate 195, and there — again! — was a Kennedy supporter in the corner, waiting to catch a gaffe on film.
“I was just surprised that they went through the trouble,” said Bielat, 37, as he walked out of the room.
He dropped his voice in mock conspiracy, “— they’re in the lead!”
It’s no secret: In the race for the Fourth Congressional District seat vacated by legend Representative Barney Frank, Joseph P. Kennedy III is the favorite to win. The 32-year-old political scion has the famous name (Robert F. Kennedy was his grandfather) and has raised close to $4 million. A February poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts Lowell and The Boston Herald gave Kennedy a 2-to-1 lead in the district that stretches from Brookline to New Bedford.
Though Bielat maintains the numbers may have edged closer as Kennedy’s name recognition has worn off, he is the self-admitted Republican underdog. A Marine reservist and former tech executive who challenged Frank in 2010 and garnered 43.4 percent of the vote, Bielat has maintained throughout the campaign that he offers a no-nonsense fiscal responsibility that comes from his experience in the business world.
As the campaign edges to a close, the every-last-vote-counts urgency of the Senate and presidential races seemed largely absent. Days before the election, both candidates separately visited Franklin High School to address an advanced placement government class. For an hour, each talked fiscal policy and social issues with 45 teenagers, most of whom are too young to vote.
Kennedy, whose qualifications include the Peace Corps, Harvard Law School, and two years as a Cape Cod prosecutor, has largely stuck with the goals he outlined in the beginning of the race: supporting early childhood education and student loan relief, improving transportation infrastructure, strengthening the Affordable Care Act, and raising taxes for households earning more than $1 million.
But it has not been all smooth sailing for Kennedy. Shortly after he announced his candidacy, Kennedy heard from a constituent who delivered advice: “There’s one thing you can do to be the best advocate for this district — convince Barney Frank to run for reelection.”
At a Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce meeting last week, he sidestepped repeatedly when one audience member asked him to identify three parts of the federal budget he planned to cut, leading the man to point out that Kennedy had not answered his question.
And his name has proven, at times, to be an obstacle. One of the questions he says he is asked most often: Have you met Taylor Swift?
It’s an image that Kennedy says he has worked hard to combat.
“We’ve tried very hard to get out as aggressively as we can to let people know who I am and what I care about — let people come out and kick the tires, right?” Kennedy told the Franklin High School students. “Kind of give it a little bit of a scrub and say, ‘Who are you?’ and let people get that sense of who you are and what you do.”
Even in Attleboro, where lawn signs along North Main Street are split about evenly between the two candidates, the stakes felt low. Wednesday night, Kennedy, along with 20 supporters, greeted disembarking commuters on the outbound platform of the commuter rail station. Kennedy tossed out “Hi, I’m Joe,” and offered handshakes as he sipped hot chocolate.
The candidate almost never mentions Bielat without being asked. And some of the Republican’s supporters still don’t know how to pronounce his name. (It’s BEE-lat, not BUY-el-at.)
Bielat’s camp says Kennedy has refused to engage on the issues, citing the fact that Kennedy agreed to only three formal debates, one only 15 minutes long that was broadcast at 7 a.m. (The two have made two other joint appearances.)
But even when a person dressed in a yellow chicken costume arrived at the commuter rail station, hoisting a “CHICKEN 4 CONGRESS” sign — the chicken’s two friends, high school students, said they were protesting Kennedy’s attempts to dodge debates — Kennedy just chuckled.
“Every time Sean has an opportunity to try to distract from what are the real issues in this race, he tries to do that,” Kennedy said later. “The whole idea that I’m somehow running away from interviews or not doing debates or anything else I just think is a farce.”
Kennedy’s supporters say his distaste for political tangling is part of his appeal.
“He is honest, you can tell,” said Eric Purcell, 41, an Attleboro resident who carried a sign at the commuter rail station. “On all the political commercials, his is the best by far because he’s being honest with you, he’s not throwing mud at the other guy, he’s not trying to make the other guy look bad. He’s just coming at you: ‘This is how I’m going to do it. If you vote for me, this is what you’re going to get.’ ”Continued...