The State of the Union rebuttal, once a platform for the minority party to showcase its best and brightest, has, after a series of prime-time bellyflops, become a somewhat less desirable gig for rising stars. People even say it’s cursed.
Luckily, the man tapped to give the Democrats’ official response, a Kennedy who has achieved Internet fame for his passionate defenses of the Affordable Care Act, has had to become comfortable with both viral stardom and the threat of a curse. Representative Joe Kennedy III – son of six-term Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy, nephew of Ted Kennedy, grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and grand-nephew of JFK – will deliver the Democrats official response from a vocational school in Fall River, Massachusetts. (Unofficial responses will also be delivered by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Virginia Del. Elizabeth Guzman, and Representative Maxine Waters.)
Rolling Stone caught up with the 37-year-old political scion the morning of his big speech to hear how he was readying to go after Trump.
Big night tonight! How are you preparing?
My two-year-old, I think, was excited for this speech – she’s been up since two in the morning. That’s been really helpful. So, it’s going to be whatever it was before plus a whole lot of coffee!
I’m home, which is obviously nice. I’m with my family, and still going over the speech and doing some fine tuning to it, and hopefully we’ll get over to the venue and do a dry run there, then just relax a bit. Hopefully take a nap at some point.
You’re speaking from a vocational school in your district – how did you pick this spot?
Most of these have been done from an office space in the Washington. It’s a hard speech to give anyway, but it’s particularly hard to give in that format. There’s no way anybody is going to meet the [pomp and] circumstance of the State of the Union, and the chamber of the House of Representatives with a thousand people in the audience. But you don’t have to do it in Washington – you can do it basically anywhere else you wanted to and I wanted to be able to give it from someplace in my district, in the community that I represent.
Why you got into politics, apart from the obvious?
I grew up around it, obviously. My dad was in office for six terms, and I had plenty of relatives that were around it. It was something that I was always interested in, but I didn’t necessarily think I’d be doing it at a relatively young age. (I got into office in my early thirties.) It was bit of a circuitous route – I was an engineering management major and I wasn’t quite ready to take a desk job right out of school. So, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic for about two and half years, and I worked in a community with a group of young men who were guides for a beautiful series of waterfalls that formed 27 natural waterfall cliff jumps. But the guys were getting really taken advantage of by these big international tour companies. I was able to work with them and the government to get these guys more legal rights and create an economic model that gave them a fair wage and reinvested a bunch of proceeds into preserving the park and creating it as an economic engine for the community.
You also worked with Haitian migrants at that time. I imagine that President Trump’s remarks about Haitians – he’s said “they all have AIDS,” and openly questioned why the U.S. should welcome them – had a particular resonance for you. What did you make of those remarks?
Outrageous, uniformed, hurtful, ignorant – take your pick.
It is a very human instinct to try to provide a better life for your family. And what I saw was Haitians that were willing to endure extraordinary poverty to try to get a little bit better circumstance for their kids. That’s the exact same instinct that got my family here to begin with. And it’s one that brings Guatemalans and Hondurans and Salvadorans and Mexicans and all sorts of other folks up through our Southern border. It’s also, as you know, this not just an issue around Dreamers and immigration, but the focus ends up being on people of Hispanic descent. There’s an awful lot of Irish immigrants that are here without the proper documentation – folks from a lot of other nationalities. This is a human story and it’s a human story that has actually powered the success of the United States.
You were outspoken critic of the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act – and Democrats succeeded at defeating those bills. I’m curious, reflecting on this first year under Trump, what you’re proud and how you think Democrats can be more effective?
I’m proud of the fact that we were able to stand up for country and for the idea that healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. But just because they didn’t repeal it by September 30th doesn’t mean that there’s not another dozen ways or so that this administration won’t continue to try to undermine the success of the ACA, and we’ll obviously continue to see that. One of the blessings and the challenges of this job and politics in general is that it is never over, right? That’s a good thing because failure is never permanent, and it’s a tough thing because success is never final either. The Affordable Care Act has done tremendous things in terms of access to care for lots of folks. Still, those of us that support it have to acknowledge that there are still parts of our country that are absolutely struggling to gain access to the care they need at a price that people can afford. You can’t be touting the successful failure of one piece of legislation without acknowledging that there are still a lot of people hurting and we need to build on that.
I have some trouble squaring your support for the healthcare act with your strident opposition to marijuana, including medical. Why are you against legalization?
Look, this is a hard one – it’s a hard one for me. It’s hard as a younger, pretty progressive Democrat from Massachusetts, where the voters here have voted to legalize marijuana. I hear an awful lot about from people in Massachusetts and across the country. And I take those concerns seriously and I’m trying to kind of work my way through the issue as well. One of my main areas of focus in Congress has been on behavioral and mental health and addiction. Experts in those communities, while many will say, ‘Look, legalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use is not a big deal;’ I think that’s probably true for the vast majority of Americans. From spending an awful lot of time around folks working through behavioral health, mental health and addiction issues, I’m cognizant of the fact that people don’t respond the same way to substances like marijuana, and it can, for some, have a dangerous impact. So I think we have to be thoughtful and careful about how we think about this when it comes to something like legalization of a controlled substance.
But what does being “thoughtful and careful” about marijuana mean to you – does it mean descheduling it so that there can be more research?
Yes, I’ve been supportive of trying to get – and this does get complicated – but I’ve pushed to try to open up additional resources for more research into marijuana. You know, it gets caught up a bit in government bureaucracy, but I absolutely think more research would be a good start to try to make sure we can navigate through this together. I hear those concerns, absolutely. In my position you can’t ignore them. And they’re real, and I hear it from people that want to be able to use it recreationally. I also hear it from the other side too and I think both sides have a legitimate concern and when you start talking about the legalization of a controlled substance I think that’s something we need to think through very carefully.
Last night, the House Intelligence Committee voted on party lines to open an investigation into the FBI. What were your thoughts when you heard that?
The intelligence committee is supposed to be a committee of adults and it’s supposed to be one of those rare vestiges of Congress these days where politics really is put aside. You are dealing with the most sensitive issues that our government deals with both substantively and with the oversight of our intelligence community. The idea that that committee has turned into a partisan one where you are going to release on a party line vote a highly controversial memo that the Department of Justice has argued would be exceedingly reckless, without due process, without the time, apparently, for full vetting by the Department of Justice to see if there would be adverse intelligence consequences and then while Democrats have put forth their own memo to on a party line vote that down, is just — it’s stunning.
Did you ever have reservations about getting into politics?
Absolutely. The person that pushed me most not to run for office was my father. Many people think my family would have pushed me to do this, they pushed me not to. If you’re fortunate enough to hold office, it’s an extraordinary honor. It’s also a major commitment and it has consequences for you, your personal life, your family, and it’s that’s real and that can be really hard. There are certainly times that growing up and just being around it you’re aware of the fact that as much of an honor as it is, it’s comes with costs and oftentimes those costs are borne by others around the elected official, like your family. And that’s hard.
Do you ever talk with your dad about how different the political climate is today compared to when he or your other relatives were in office?
I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s gotten worse. Look: politics has always been a full contact sport. People in that business, they pull no punches. We have these raucous debates and that’s okay. That is actually part of the idea, that you have these big philosophical disagreements and you work through them. And sometimes it’s messy; it’s not always pretty, but we work through them. I think what’s missing at this point – and I would argue largely because of campaign finance laws and gerrymandering – you don’t have an additional pullback toward compromise. We’ve clearly seen this with the tone the president has struck, when he says we’ll cut a deal when one side wins and another side loses. What I would urge him to understand is: when you’re dealing with your own government and your own people, one side shouldn’t have to lose for another side to win. The idea that Republicans win and Democrats lose, that means in your opinion half the country is always losing. That’s not the way you govern a country.