Joe Kennedy III on leaving office, losing his Senate bid, and what’s next

"I think the Democratic Party and the country would benefit from examining some of those structures."

Joe Kennedy III greets voters outside the Florian Hall polling station in Boston during last year's Massachusetts state primary.
Joe Kennedy III greets voters outside the Florian Hall polling station in Boston during last year's Massachusetts state primary. –Joseph Prezioso / AFP

It’s an extraordinary time to be a member of Congress. But for the first time in eight years, Joe Kennedy III is on the outside looking in.

After losing his bid last summer to unseat Sen. Ed Markey, the now-former Massachusetts congressman is beginning to plan his post-Capitol Hill life.

“I’ve had this extraordinary honor for the past eight years,” Kennedy told Boston.com in an interview this week, after officially closing his congressional office Sunday.

“And as I close out that chapter and turn the page to the next one, I’m eager to find ways to carry those experiences and knowledge and relationships to continue to find ways to advocate for the people and causes that I care about,” he said.

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Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a 32-year-old former Newton city councilor and fellow Democrat, was sworn in Sunday to take Kennedy’s seat representing the 4th District.

According to Kennedy, the Democratic Party — both locally and nationally — should continue empowering more new voices in a system dominated by older incumbents. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a Republican ploy to challenge the presidential election results, the 40-year-old admits that it’s somewhat strange to be freshly out of office.

“The worst — the most amazing — thing about this is it’s obviously gonna get worse in the next two weeks,” he says of President Donald Trump’s final days in office.

The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Why do you think things get worse in the coming weeks?

You obviously have a president that was never constrained by the normal understandings of law, or decency, or the requirements of the office, who, at this point, is coming to grips with the fact that he lost an election. But he is going to do whatever it is that he can to exert whatever power he can in the waning days of his tenure.

And so whether it’s additional pardons, which I think are essentially all but guaranteed, and for whom and potentially for family members, which would raise the obvious question, ‘For what?’

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Whether it’s the abuse of such tributes as the Medal of Freedom for his biggest cheerleaders and enablers in Congress that, in essence, have done more to damage this institution and our democracy than almost anybody in recent history.

Whether it’s the additional recklessness with which he approaches the job — I mean, we’ve got [a pandemic] with thousands of Americans dying every day, we’ve got a vaccine the rollout of which has not gone according to the plans that his administration designed. You’ve got geopolitical issues from the Middle East to China, and you’ve got a president that is completely and totally disconnected from all of it.

How should Democrats, and also Republicans, in Congress respond with just two weeks left in his term?

I don’t think you can ignore it.

Just because somebody breaks so many laws or violates so many norms doesn’t mean that we then normalize that behavior, right? And, so look, I think the president should have been impeached off of the Mueller report. It’s 450 pages long, but the analysis at one point boils down to less than a page, and it says there was sufficient evidence to prove that the president committed an impeachable offense. Period. If you know what you’re reading, that’s what it says. So, you know, I don’t think that you just let these things go, because I think history matters and I think the precedent matters. The big question here — and Democrats are essentially on the record for — essentially comes down to the leadership of a Republican Party, and whether they are going to countenance the destruction of some of the vestiges of, literally, our republic for political ambition.

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I’ve been relieved and heartened to see the reaction of some — like Sen. Romney, Sen. Sasse, Sen. Toomey — to call out their fellow Republicans and say how dangerous this is. But you shouldn’t have to give kudos to federal elected officials for standing up and defending the Constitution from basic fundamental attacks. I do this, not to try to target those folks that are, but to say to 12 or so Republicans — two of whom were clerks on the Supreme Court, like Ted Cruz knows better, Josh Hawley knows better. And yet, they’ve decided that the appropriate thing to do at this point is to engage in innuendo that they helped foster to continue to destabilize the foundations of democracy.

Is it weird to be out of office during a moment like this?

On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, candidly, it feels a bit of like what it felt like in the past year or two, because I don’t think anything’s changed all that much from a work-from-home life.

Obviously, I think anybody that seeks federal office, or seeks any office, hopes to be able to serve in times of consequence, and these are certainly times of consequence. So yes, on one hand, you want to be able to contribute to solutions through this incredibly challenging moment that we’re in. I obviously believe that there’s really important work that can be done within those institutions. That’s why I ran for Senate.

But I also don’t think that you have to be in elected office in order to make a contribution. I think that’s one way to do it. As you point out, there’s a number of challenges our country’s confronting in this moment. I hope to, in the weeks and months and years ahead, find other ways of contributing to those solutions that aren’t necessarily through elected office.

Is there anything in particular you have in mind?

I expect that it’s going to be a mix of opportunities — some nonprofits, some political, and some others — that will enable me to stay active on some of the issues and causes that I care about, like access to health care and mental health, like some of the economic justice issues that I tended to highlight over the course of my time in office, and issues around the impact of climate change.

What were the last days in D.C. like?

Nothing was normal. And, look, I think this has been a challenge for almost everybody across our country, and around the world, at this point. COVID obviously has taken all of the daily routines of life and upended them.

So some of the most enjoyable parts and rewarding parts of this job have been the time you spend — that I spent — around my district engaging with your constituents or in Washington engaging with your colleagues, in committee hearings, all the rest of that. And we’ve largely been prevented from doing that. You can’t even get everybody on the House floor at a time, right?

When I gave my final address or whatever on the floor a couple weeks ago, you’re not able to see people the way that you normally would or wind down your time the way that I think anybody would like. But that’s also the circumstance of the moment. That just is what it is.

Were there any colleagues in Congress with whom you became unexpected friends?

Yeah, a bunch of them.

One of the great things about the job is you learn the diversity of our country, because of the representatives that are sent to represent different voices across our country. And so I had the chance to interact with and become friends with people that I never would have met otherwise and that I don’t share a whole lot in common with, politically or otherwise — some very conservative Republicans, some folks from parts of the country that I still haven’t been to, some folks that we disagree on almost everything about.

Some of that is hard, particularly now, given the polarization of the day and some of the strategies and platforms put forth by the Republican Party. But also, the ability to sit down and find solutions to common problems with people that are approaching the issues as differently as some of my colleagues do, some of that was the best parts of the job.

Going on a trip to Japan with Billy Long, who before being a member of Congress was a hog auctioneer. He’s the first hog auctioneer that I have ever met. He served on the Energy and Commerce Committee with me, and we worked on a bunch of stuff together, including, interestingly enough, maternal mortality issues. Billy and I disagree on a lot of stuff, but he was one of the first when the [Black Maternal Health Caucus] was coming together and he reached out and said that he wanted to be on it and he was one of the first Republicans — he was one of the first members, period.

Part of the opportunity and responsibility of this job is, where we disagree, to stand up and fight for the values that I believe in. But you also have to spend the time trying to figure out where are the opportunities for agreement and fight for those as well.

I know you’ve said you have no regrets about your Senate campaign. But given what you’ve said about serving in times of consequence and what you’ll miss about being a member of Congress, I wanted to press you on that. Really? No regrets?

Yeah… Will I miss parts of this job and service? Sure. Do I also think that, having observed what I did and understanding that in this moment I think — I thought a year ago and I still think so now — that there are ways in which the platform of the United States Senate seat can be used effectively to try to advocate for and to push and guide our country through those challenges. I felt like there was something I could offer there, and I wanted to show that. And so I did it.

We were able to highlight a number of those issues and causes and people over the course of the campaign. And many of their stories and circumstances I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

Do I wish the outcome of that campaign turned out differently? Yeah, of course I do. That being said, as I’ve said before, I respect Sen. Markey, and I know that he’ll do a good job representing the people of Massachusetts. I was proud to vote for him. Do I wish things turned out a bit differently? Sure. Do I think that, just because I’m not serving in the U.S. Senate, you can’t find ways to build upon those experiences? No. I look forward to figuring out exactly how to do that.

Looking back on that race, have you come to any conclusions about why you lost?

I think there’s a lot that goes into that. There’s a lot that goes into races, obviously. It’s kind of like asking Bill Belichick why the Patriots lost, right? They scored more points. He won more votes.

What I was hoping to be able to do was to go out and make the case before the people of Massachusetts as to what else I could bring to that role. I was trying to do that. Obviously, COVID was not wholly helpful in enabling me to make that case.

But give credit to Sen. Markey and his campaign and advocacy and energy with which he approached [the race] and the case that he was able to make. And again, we came up short, but I still don’t regret the decision that I made to get into the race. And I think we, we were able to highlight some of the challenges that our commonwealth and our country confront, and I hope that this energy can be able to use the platform that he’s got to continue to fight on those issues in the Senate. And I think he will.

You recently said that you thought the race made Markey “stronger” as a candidate and “hopefully” also as a senator. How so?

Whenever you have a highly contested campaign, whoever is able to come through that campaign successfully comes out with an enhanced stature and platform and voice.

[Markey] came into this being well liked and well respected in Massachusetts, and around the country. But I think even more so coming out of the campaign.

Have you gotten to speak much with Jake Auchincloss?

Yes, absolutely. I was texting with him yesterday.

I’m sure you can’t share everything, but is there any advice you have for him, either about representing the 4th District or entering Congress as someone in their early 30s?

We’ve had a number of conversations, basically since the primary in September, through the campaign, and obviously since the election. He’s gonna keep a couple of my staff on board at least initially as he gets up and running, which I think is great and important for continuity of service in the district. So I applaud him for that.

I want to be respectful of Jake … much like Congressman Barney Frank did for me, which was be there for me when I had questions and when I sought advice. But to also recognize that he’s the congressman. If he believes I could be helpful in giving some suggestions, whether that’s about the politics or policy or anything else, I’m happy to be.

But I think he ran a good hard race, and in the conversations that we have had, I think he also understands the priority — always, but in your first term there — is the district. Be humble and make sure people see you out and about. I think the congressman understands that that’s particularly hard to do in the midst of a pandemic when you can’t get out and about. We spent a lot of time in my first two years up and down [Route] 24 and 495. That’s harder to do when you can’t get together.

You ran a campaign that was often critical of how the status quo was delivering for certain communities. Do you think the Democratic Party, both here in Massachusetts as well as nationally, should take the current opportunity to elevate new, younger leaders?

The short answer there is yes.

I think that transition is partially underway. I think many have commented that it is somewhat surprising that the Democratic Party, that often thinks of itself as the party of young people empowered by millennials, that our leadership is, uh, experienced, and has been in their leadership roles for a very long time. We see that in Massachusetts and obviously across the country.

There’s some big questions there; I can speak more to that federally than I can at the state level. There’s some questions there that, at least in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Caucus has wrestled with for a long time and I think we have to continue to wrestle with. Nationally, everybody that believes they can make a contribution, I think should have a chance to be able to make that case. And it’s why I think that primaries are a good thing — can be a good thing — for our party, when you actually engage in that spirited debate about values and vision and policy and direction.

Look, I don’t think that just because somebody’s young means they should be given the reigns of a party or a congressional district or a state or the country. I don’t think that just because somebody is experienced, that means they should either. They should be able to go out there and make that case.

The one challenge there is that if you have a system that so strongly benefits incumbents, it’s awfully hard for those newer voices, or fresh voices, to be able to make that case. And I think that’s part of what the Democratic Party has to weigh. Are there reforms that need to be made that make those races more competitive, rather than a somewhat arbitrary advantage to people that have been there just for the sake of the fact that they’ve been there.

Are there any particular reforms — or things that need to be changed — that you have in mind there?

There’s a whole bunch of issues. Everything from redistricting to campaign finance reform. If you change the campaign finance reform structure, that could obviously go a long way. I think there’s issues that should be looked at nationally and locally from the various requirements to get on the ballot to requirements to run for either statewide office or federal office. Like, what’s the purpose of them, if not barring people from trying to get on the ballot and seek office.

I certainly think it would behoove the Democratic Party to not obviously throw out experience. These jobs are big hard jobs. But again, I think when you’re in a model of saying, I need to be in office for 25, 30, 35 years in order to achieve seniority in order to be able to deliver for my district and my constituents. Well, the only reason you need to be there for 30 years is because everybody else was there for 30 years. If people were there for 15, you’d have to be 15. And I think many would say, 15-20 years is probably a significant period of time where you can learn the trade and have a pretty sizable experience to be able to deliver for the constituency that you care about. So, I think the Democratic Party and the country would benefit from examining some of those structures.

One last thing: I know you said you now have 15 years of “breakfast, bath, and school drop-off duty.” How has that gone so far?

Look, my kids just turned 3 and 5 in the past two weeks. I have been gone for over a third of their lives, up until COVID. There’s a lot of time that I missed, and it has been the biggest benefit to obviously falling short in my campaign in September that I’ve been home a lot more and have had a much freer schedule than I otherwise ever would have, and that I ever have had over the course of their lives. That is obviously an extraordinary benefit.

Anything at the top of your list of things to do once we get past the pandemic?

I owe my wife a vacation. That is without question.

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