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Connecticut made national news last week when State Senator Ed Meyer, announcing his retirement after five terms, anointed Ted Kennedy Jr. as his successor. The 52-year old Kennedy, who has made no secret of his interest in a second career in politics, and has been making the rounds over the last few years to DTC meetings and other political gatherings across the state, says he will make a decision about running to succeed Meyer in the next couple weeks. His expected entry into the race will almost certainly clear the field of other Democratic candidates, and according to a report by Marcia Chambers in the Branford Eagle, may clear the field of Republican candidates as well. (According to Chambers, Republicans were planning to run Cindy Cartier, a Guilford attorney and Board of Education member who lost to Meyer in 2012 -- but would re-assess if Kennedy were in the race. GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola has denied that report.) If he decides to run, Kennedy is the overwhelming favorite to be the next senator from the (slightly) Democratic-leaning 12th district that consists mainly of the shoreline towns between Branford and Madison.
Is the emergence of TK2 good news for progressives? On the one hand, Kennedy has been an activist for some progressive causes: he and his wife Kiki earned the respect of the environmental community for helping organize opposition to a natural gas pipeline stretching from the Connecticut shoreline across Long Island Sound (not a particularly courageous stance in their Stony Creek stomping grounds, where Islander East was about as popular as Ebola). He is considered close to organized labor and has deep ties in the disability rights movement, in which he has been active since losing his right leg to bone cancer in his teens.
On the other hand, there are several reasons that progressives might be skeptical of TK2: questions about his business career as a broker of "political intelligence;" his apparent willingness to be scripted by a team of beltway insiders; and the way his coronation by the Democratic establishment has largely ignored grassroots progressives. These are perceptions that he may need to overcome if he wants to earn the unconditional backing of the Democratic base. Consider the following:
1) Kennedy's health care consulting firm, Marwood, has for years been the subject of allegations of enabling insider trading by providing non-public information regarding Medicare and other federal programs to hedge funds and wealthy investors. Marwood was the subject of a federal investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, from which it received subpoenas in late 2012. The fact that apparently nothing came out of the investigation did not forestall a right-wing smear campaign against Kennedy led by Tucker Carlson's website, The Daily Caller, which has been particularly vicious in highlighting potentially damaging information about Marwood, and linking it to a imagined conspiracy of Obama donors and allies attempting to profit from insider information about Obamacare delays and the like. It's important to emphasize that there is no evidence of TK2 engaging in any wrongdoing, but his decision earlier this year to join a Stamford law firm suggests a strategic effort to distance himself somewhat from Marwood. While it's unlikely that Marwood would become the focus of negative advertising in a state legislative race, if he uses the state senate seat as a stepping-stone for higher office, he would surely face a barrage of Koch-sponsored ads portraying him as the poster child for the failure and corruption of Obamacare. Right-wing smears and political 'baggage' notwithstanding, Marwood represents the kind of nexus of big money and political connections that for many progressives is the essence of what is wrong with Washington.
2) In a now-famous profile of Kennedy in the New York Times Magazine in March 2013 ("Ted Kennedy Jr. is [Finally] Ready for the Family Business"), writer Mark Leibovich mocked Kennedy for being surrounded by a team of "handlers" led by Washington DC public relations guru Dick Keil (who now works for ExxonMobil). The picture painted by Leibovich suggests that Kennedy hasn't made up his mind whether he wants to be a boring, wooden, over-managed candidate scripted by pollsters to sound soothing to hypothetical 'median voters,' or to be a more free-wheeling and authentic progressive. As a political neophyte, TK2 may need some guidance from experienced advisers to get him ready for prime-time, but if he wants the kind of groundswell of progressive support that Elizabeth Warren achieved in her Massachusetts senate campaign in 2012, he should consider ditching the same breed of beltway hacks and handlers who gave us the landslide victory for President Al Gore.
3) Most galling for progressives is the notion that they suspend rational decision-making and take Kennedy's slim track record and progressive bona fides on faith. It is widely believed that TK2 is being groomed by the party establishment to succeed Rep. Rosa DeLauro when she leaves office. Hopefully at some point the party establishment will get around to asking progressive activists in the third congressional district if they're on board with Kennedy leap-frogging a host of more qualified candidates (e.g. State Rep. Roland Lemar, State Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson) who happen to not be members of a legendary political dynasty. Progressives who have fought for years in the trenches -- not only against Republicans but also phony Democrats like Joe Lieberman -- to make Connecticut a bold blue state may not be particularly eager to participate in the coronation of an untried candidate based on his golden surname. Isn't it enough that we could have an upcoming presidential election featuring another Clinton running against another Bush?
Most progressives want TK2 to succeed (they certainly want to keep the 12th senate district in Democratic hands), so dispelling these clouds of skepticism will not necessarily be difficult. One simple step that TK2 might take is participating in Connecticut's Citizens Election Program: obviously he could massively out-fundraise any potential opponent, but committing to the state's clean elections program and its limitations on campaign spending would signal to progressives that he is about more than fat out-of-district checks and fancy political connections.
The most important thing for TK2 right now, as he launches his political career, is to avoid taking progressive support for granted the way Ned Lamont did in the Democratic primary for governor in 2010. Lamont, who thought he could rely on the progressive support he built up in his 2006 US Senate race, ran to the center and lost to Dan Malloy by nearly 20 points. You have to earn progressive support and then keep earning it. That is a cautionary lesson that the Democratic establishment, apparently more interested in nurturing old political dynasties than in consulting the grassroots, should keep in mind as well.