The Times-Picayune - U.S. Senate Race: John Kennedy is Outspoken and Persistent
By Bill Barrow
If John Kennedy makes it to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana, he would not be the first, or certainly the most famous, member of "the world's most exclusive club" to carry that name.
So the Centreville, Miss., native -- middle name Neely not Fitzgerald, party affiliation Republican not Democrat, and a United Methodist, not a Catholic -- could stand to find another way to distinguish himself from the onetime Massachusetts senator and 35th president.
To hear him tell it, Louisiana's Kennedy is patterning his approach after someone with a more common name: "Mr. Smith, " as in the fictitious Jimmy Stewart character who turns the nation's capital and all of its political maneuvering on its head with an honest, common-sense approach.
"Washington, D.C., is fundamentally broken, " Kennedy said, repeating a version of his standard message as he sat in the state treasurer's office he has occupied since January 2000. "And the most dysfunctional part is the United States Congress. You tell me one problem that the American people worry about when they go to sleep at night that Congress has fixed in the last 15 years."
In his stump speech, he usually adds a dig at his specific target, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu: "If you want to change the Senate, you've got to change the senator." And he rejects out-of-hand Landrieu's argument that Louisiana cannot afford to lose her seniority as a two-term senator.
"Has clout educated our children?" Kennedy asked. "Has clout made health care more accessible? Has clout given us a reputation we can be proud of?"
Striking a chord
Landrieu and Kennedy, along with a handful of lesser-known candidates, meet in the Nov. 4 general election.
Kennedy's critics, most of them staunch Landrieu supporters or previous targets of his homespun barbs, dismiss his pitch as the latest tune in a political career defined by unsuccessful bids for higher office and a 2007 switch from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That move followed a one-on-one with Karl Rove, the architect of President Bush's political climb, and a courtship by Louisiana's junior senator, Republican David Vitter, who defeated Kennedy and other Democrats in 2004.
The treasurer's supporters, alternately, characterize him as a fearless watchdog of taxpayer money, an effective advocate for good government and an independent voice unafraid to take on any establishment, including within his own party, whichever one it is.
This much is clear: Kennedy is a small-town boy turned constitutional law professor with undeniably impressive academic credentials, including degrees from Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia and Oxford (not Ole Miss); but he's carved a niche in Baton Rouge as the folksy, outspoken state treasurer who knows how to bird-dog issues that resonate with voters who perceive government as inefficient, wasteful and, worse, corrupt.
His start in politics came as special counsel to Gov. Buddy Roemer, who was elected in 1987 as a reform governor on the heels of the oil bust and the excesses of Edwin Edwards. Kennedy remembers fondly working in the Roemer inner circle that won legislative approval of Louisiana's first significant campaign finance regulations.
"That absolutely changed Louisiana politics, " he said of ending unlimited, unreported contributions.
Roemer, a Harvard alumnus, called Kennedy, "as smart as anybody I've ever worked with."
Since winning the treasurer's chair, a prize that followed a failed Democratic bid for attorney general, Kennedy has garnered the most attention as chairman of the State Bond Commission. Most conspicuously, he opposed state backing of a proposed sugar mill in Bunkie pushed by then-Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, Senate President Donald "Doc" Hines and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, all powerful Democrats.
Kennedy had not been so vocal when the commission approved a similar proposal in 2003 for a $45 million mill in Lacassine. But he led the outcry in defeating the $135 million reprise.
"He did that for attention, " Hines said, still defending the deal as good for cane farmers and sugar producers and a safe investment for the state. "He's out for his own interest."
Hines said the only private discussions he had with Kennedy over the matter were upon the senator's initiative. Kennedy's answer: Hines and Odom never provided adequate written justification for the project.
Separately, Kennedy pilloried the hurricane recovery efforts of Blanco's administration and beat back her proposal to sell what remains of the state's future payments from tobacco companies under a federal legal settlement.
Democratic Party Chairman Chris Whittington remembered Kennedy as a party official who rarely attended Democratic functions, earning a reputation as "something other than a team player."
Kennedy's public career does bespeak some policy and political dichotomies. Now a critic of Roe v. Wade, he was Roemer's legal adviser when the governor vetoed a sweeping abortion ban, and he supported abortion rights as a candidates for attorney general.
He endorsed Democrat John Kerry for president in 2004, as Kennedy positioned himself in the Senate race to the left of centrist Democrat Chris John. This year, he often reminds voters that Landrieu has endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president. Meanwhile, he describes his kinship with Republican nominee John McCain: "My kind of guy" who believes in "bedrock conservative change."
Kennedy explains those shifts as a combination of maturing opinions and just plain "mistakes." He's simply changed his mind on abortion, including before the 2004 race. He has credited fatherhood as the major factor. He backtracked on his Kerry endorsement this year, saying, "I was uncomfortable from the beginning."
Kennedy noted that during his 2004 political campaign, even as a Democrat who supported a minimum-wage increase, he advocated gun rights and took the routine conservative stances on every social issue, from abortion to same-sex marriage. He's also said the core of his political philosophy -- lower taxes and wise use of what is collected -- never has changed.
Away from the campaign trail, however, sitting in his office for an extended interview, he avoids framing his current race in terms of the presidential contest or amorphous labels such as "liberal" and "conservative."
"There are certain principles which I believe in terms of government and the role of government and making policy. . . . Most people would call them conservative. I've always thought of them more in terms of common sense and what works, rather than trying to pigeon-hole it into a particular political philosophy."
The question some observers have raised is what, if anything, that history would mean for Kennedy as a senator.
Former Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat and Landrieu backer who prided himself on being a centrist power-broker, said, "Your word is important in the Senate. . . . The Senate is a fairly close-knit group of people. It's an institution that has traditions over time. If you have the viewpoint of being a bombastic type of person, the leadership -- neither the Republican nor the Democrats -- will like that."
But Breaux said some flamboyant freshmen have proved adept at conforming to the Senate's mores. He cited Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, who came to the Senate in 2003 having angered Democrats because of his campaign commercials that questioned the patriotism of Max Cleland, a paraplegic Vietnam veteran. "Saxby has learned to work well" on both sides of the aisle, Breaux said.
Roemer, a former member of Congress, said Kennedy should not have to adapt. "Look at John McCain, " he said, recalling his then-House colleague once casting the lone Republican "nay" vote against a Reagan military initiative. "I think people are tired of business as usual up there, " Roemer said.
Under no illusions that his style would yield immediate results, Kennedy said, "You just have to know what you are talking about and be persistent, " a strategy he said McCain used in a years-long effort with Democrat Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform.
Again dismissing Landrieu's emphasis on Senate relationships, Kennedy said his approach could command as much federal financing for Louisiana projects as her seniority, provided "we demonstrate our need and spend what we get wisely."
But a broader view, he said, still is appropriate: "The job of a United States senator is more important than being a money collector. . . . It's about trying to solve people's problems and making tough, tough choices. There aren't any other kind in government."