At Home, Cynicism and Support

Restaurant owner Phil Bellino of Woonsocket, R.I., said he still supports Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy.
Restaurant owner Phil Bellino of Woonsocket, R.I., said he still supports Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy. "He's human. He just got caught." (Photos By David A. Fahrenthold -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- The bad news for Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy: The voters of Rhode Island do not, by and large, seem to believe his version of what led to a car crash early Thursday outside the U.S. Capitol.

"I don't buy the medicine story," said Michael Rossi, a nurse waiting in line at a news and video kiosk in this small downtown. He said he thinks alcohol was to blame for the crash, not the prescription drugs cited by Kennedy.

Now the good news for Kennedy: The voters of Rhode Island -- including Rossi -- also don't seem to care.

"It's a separate issue," said Rossi, who said he will remain a Kennedy supporter. "He's got maybe an alcohol problem. That doesn't make him a bad representative."

Similar stories were told again and again across Kennedy's district, which covers a swath of suburbs, strip malls and run-down mill towns around the northern and eastern borders of the state. From Pawtucket to Woonsocket, the six-term representative's sins were often forgiven almost before they were admitted, and by people who said they were motivated by his hard work, his power or just the traditional indulgence granted to Kennedys in this region.

"Somehow, I still love him," said Helen Lisi, a retiree from Lincoln, R.I., who was eating with her daughter at a pub on Friday in Cumberland. Maybe it was all that Kennedy had done for senior citizens, she said.

"We all have our problems," said her daughter, Cheryl LaRiviere, a teacher who said Kennedy has also done good things for teachers. "I think that's a personal situation."

Kennedy, 38, the son of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), came to Rhode Island to attend Providence College and stayed to begin a political career in the state legislature. He was first elected to the U.S. House in the 1st District in 1994, and won his most recent election with 64 percent of the vote.

This election year, Patrick Kennedy (D) didn't even have an announced Republican opponent until Friday, when a former Foreign Service officer said he will run. The timing of that announcement, a day after Kennedy's 2:50 a.m. crash put him in the middle of an embarrassing national spotlight, was described as "entirely coincidental" by a spokesman for the Rhode Island GOP.

Still, even a national controversy and a new challenger aren't likely to alter the election storyline for Kennedy, said Darrell West, a professor of public policy and political science at Brown University.

"Kennedy is very popular in Rhode Island," said West, who wrote a book on the representative, "Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power," in 2000. "And the fact that he's admitted he needs help will help defuse the situation."

That projection of Election Day support was borne out in interviews with Kennedy's constituents: Nearly all said his behavior will not change the way they plan to vote. But under that surface, there appeared to be a complex relationship that included empathy and deep cynicism.

"I don't buy it at all, knowing the Kennedy history," said Sydda Merritt, who was sitting behind the counter at Pawtucket Pawn Brokers accompanied by a very large German shepherd in this near-empty downtown. She meant the story about Kennedy using prescription drugs but not alcohol. "It kind of makes you shake your head and say, 'He's just like the others,' " Merritt added.

Many of those interviewed said they were reminded of the fatal car accident Kennedy's father was blamed for in 1969 on Chappaquiddick Island, or of parallels with Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., the popular but corrupt former mayor of Providence. Others said they felt that Patrick Kennedy received special treatment when U.S. Capitol Police drove him home without testing him for the presence of alcohol.

But others read the same stories and saw a man under undue scrutiny because of his name, and under pressure from the high political expectations the name brings.

"People are still human," said Frederick Pesaturo, having a midafternoon snack at the Pastry Gourmet in Cumberland. "He's got limitations like we all have."

John Rotondo, his snacking partner, said later in the conversation: "People shouldn't jump all over him. If he needs help, get some help."

In many cases, constituents said their feelings of support weren't affected even if they believe that Kennedy had been drinking before the accident and wasn't admitting it.

"It doesn't make him a bad guy, having a drink," said Phil Bellino, the owner of Vallees Italian Restaurant in Woonsocket. He said that changed nothing for him: ". . . Course not. You kidding me? Politicians drink like fish around here."

One factor working in Kennedy's favor seemed to be high visibility: One person had met him at a labor union party, others had seen him driving around Pawtucket with an aide. Even the guys hanging out at Honey Dew Donuts in Woonsocket, who spent several minutes running down Kennedy and his family, included one who said he recalls Kennedy turning up at a local bowling alley. He even bowled, the man said.

The tangle of feelings this area seems to have about Kennedy were summed up by two women sitting outside the Exchange Place Cafe, blocks from Kennedy's downtown Pawtucket office.

Dale Balcom had the conspiracy theory: "Because he's Kennedy, even if he was drinking, they wouldn't have arrested him."

But Madelyn Burke was already prepared to see the whole thing in the light most favorable to the congressman.

"He hit a wall, but he didn't kill anybody," she said. "And I wasn't there, was I?"

© 2006 The Washington Post Company