- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

Once the golden boy of Rhode Island politics, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy's popularity has plummeted after a spate of bad publicity and too much time away from home.
Three Republicans already have lined up to challenge him in next year's election, and Mr. Kennedy says he recognizes the need to improve his image.
He's returned to his eastern Rhode Island district every weekend for months, reacquainting himself with voters after two years spent flying around the country raising money for Democratic House candidates. He's eating in diners, shopping and visiting movie complexes.
"I'm really at my low point," Mr. Kennedy acknowledged in a recent interview. "People just don't know anything positive about what I've been doing."
During his visits, Mr. Kennedy touts the roughly $100 million he's helped secure for Rhode Island from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful panels in Congress.
Mr. Kennedy gave up the seat in 1998 so he could chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, knew what a potent fund-raiser Mr. Kennedy would be for the party and wanted him in the job. In return, Mr. Gephardt promised Mr. Kennedy he'd regain a seat on Appropriations after the 2000 election.
Mr. Kennedy was on the road every weekend and recess during 1999 and 2000. The Democrats failed to reach their goal of retaking the House, but Mr. Kennedy made a mark by helping the DCCC raise a record $97 million, nearly three times the amount raised during the previous two-year election cycle.
While the Democrats gained money, Mr. Kennedy lost contact at home. His situation was made worse by a series of embarrassing incidents last year.
An airport security guard claimed he shoved her, and Mr. Kennedy issued a public apology. A charter company accused him of causing $28,000 in damage to a yacht. And the Coast Guard confirmed it had to send a rescue boat to take Mr. Kennedy's date off a boat after she became distraught following an argument.
Mr. Kennedy, who had previously acknowledged he was treated for cocaine addiction as a teen, also revealed last year he suffered from depression and took prescription medicine to control the illness.
Despite all that, Mr. Kennedy still got 67 percent of the votes against an unknown Republican last November to win a fourth term.
Joe Penkala, executive director of the Rhode Island Republican Party, repeats an oft-heard charge in local GOP circles: Mr. Kennedy cares more about the national spotlight than Rhode Island's needs.
"On election night, he flew out to St. Louis to be with Dick Gephardt. That may give an indication of Patrick's commitment," Mr. Penkala said.
All the bad publicity in 2000 apparently began sinking in with the public after the election. A February 2001 Brown University poll showed Mr. Kennedy's approval ratings had fallen to 49 percent from 63 percent the year before.
Mr. Kennedy replaced staff and devoted himself to mending relations with constituents.
But his poll numbers have slipped further. Another Brown poll, taken days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, pegged Mr. Kennedy's approval rating at 42 percent. Meanwhile, the rest of the Rhode Island delegation Sens. Jack Reed and Lincoln Chafee, and Rep. Jim Langevin all registered gains.
Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist, said Mr. Kennedy was hurt by the combination of embarrassing situations in 2000 and frequent fund-raising trips that left him unable to return to Rhode Island to defend himself.
"Rhode Island is a small state. People expect access to the congressman. If you haven't seen him three times in the last year, that's a problem," said Mr. West, author of "Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power."
Three candidates are seeking the GOP nomination to oppose Mr. Kennedy: Christine Ferguson, the state's former human services director; David Rogers, a technical analyst from Portsmouth; and Michael Battles, a Newport businessman.
Mr. Kennedy, 34, said he will run on a record of delivering for Rhode Island. Among other things, he worked with Mr. Reed to land radar and torpedo work for a major state employer, Raytheon Co., as well as federal funds to modernize public transportation for the state's elderly and disabled and for combating biological and chemical terrorism.
But in the end, it may come down to whether voters who first elected Kennedy to the state Legislature when he was 21 still believe he has their interests at heart, Mr. West said.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide