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Back home, his clout felt in hospitals, at colleges

Senator Edward M. Kennedy reads to children at a Head Start program, which provides early education instruction, at the Head Start Center in Boston in June of 2003. Senator Edward M. Kennedy reads to children at a Head Start program, which provides early education instruction, at the Head Start Center in Boston in June of 2003. (Chitose Suzuki/ Associated Press/ File)
By Susan Milligan and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / August 26, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Edward M. Kennedy was best known for his work on the national - and international - stage, battling vociferously for health care overhaul and working with Irish politicians on the Northern Ireland peace process.

But in the Bay State, too, Kennedy has left an indelible mark, steering federal dollars to the state and paying attention to state and local matters, Massachusetts lawmakers and advocates said.

“Ted Kennedy has contributed more to this state than any other five people put together,’’ said former Senate President Robert Travaglini, a Democrat from East Boston. “He’s in a class by himself, and we’ve had some powerful people. I mean no disrespect to Tip O’Neill, or to his [Kennedy’s] brother the president. But he’s surpassed them all.’’

Kennedy helped secure funding for the Big Dig, steering the plan through the Senate while former House Speaker O’Neill worked the House. He was also a major advocate for both his alma mater, Harvard University, and for public higher education, the University of Massachusetts system.

Health industry representatives credit Kennedy for protecting Medicare reimbursements to Massachusetts hospitals - a critical issue for the state’s many teaching hospitals - and for successfully expanding National Institutes of Health funding for research that often ended up being done here.

“It’s no accident that Massachusetts is the number one recipient of federal research funding - it’s because of Ted Kennedy,’’ said Philip W. Johnston, a former state secretary of health and human services and longtime friend of the Kennedys. “There are very few federally funded programs in this state that do not bear his imprint.’’

Kennedy was also “absolutely instrumental’’ in securing a federal waiver so the state could implement its mandatory health care insurance program, said Lynn Nicholas, chief executive of the Massachusetts Hospital Association.

Traditionally, senior senators leave to the junior senator and congressional delegation the task of attending to local issues. And early in his career, Kennedy was not known for a great focus on local matters.

But after his difficult 1994 reelection campaign, Kennedy took on Bay State issues in earnest. In 1999, he fought for budget changes that brought $272 million in Medicare payments to Massachusetts hospitals over the next five years. Mental health research funding in Massachusetts doubled to $70 million in the last five years after Kennedy’s push for money.

Kennedy won passage of several pieces of legislation to preserve Massachusetts heritage, including getting $5 million for the Essex National Heritage Area, and an expansion of the Lowell National Hospital Park to allow for more historic canal walkways.

In 2006 and in 2008, Kennedy secured millions of dollars to help Massachusetts fishermen hit by the red tide outbreak and restrictions on cod fishing.

“In reality, a lot of things in Massachusetts wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Ted Kennedy. He’s really irreplaceable,’’ said Boston-based consultant Larry Rasky.

Political divisions did not keep Kennedy from pursuing Massachusetts priorities. In 2004, he teamed up with former GOP Governor Mitt Romney to fight to retain military bases here. In 2001, when the nomination for Republican former Governor Paul Cellucci to be ambassador to Canada was imperiled, Kennedy approached then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott late one night on the Senate floor.

“Cellucci! Cellucci! Tomorrow! Tomorrow!’’ Kennedy said, waving his hands as if he were in an Italian opera. Lott chuckled, waving Kennedy off - then scheduled a vote that night, securing Cellucci’s approval.

Kennedy would call Mayor Thomas M. Menino on a Saturday night to offer an update on an issue. Former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi once said the state’s senior senator called him 15 times over three or four months to talk about landmark health care legislation.

Just before the Massachusetts health care overhaul legislation was signed, Travaglini invited Kennedy to speak, for the first time, at the State House, in the Senate chamber.

Kennedy, in typical fashion, sent a personal note to Travaglini saying how much he appreciated the invitation, and how fitting it was that his brother had given a speech in the House chamber, and he in the Senate.

That letter is one of the few political mementos hanging in Travaglini’s home.