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  Running Against Washington in Boston's 'Kennedy Country'

By Margot Hornblower
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1986; Page A03

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- When the Coalition for Basic Human Needs, a group of local activists, met at a Harvard Square church the other night, seven candidates for Congress showed up to debate housing, hunger and poverty. One candidate, the front-runner, was conspicuously absent. His name is Kennedy.

This was no surprise here, for Joseph P. Kennedy II, eldest son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (D-N.Y.) and nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the late President John F. Kennedy, has had it with what he calls "special interest groups that hold these frigging forums."

"They're all focused on whether or not I make the rote liberal answers and go through the laundry list of issues," he said.

If glamor, money and good looks count for something in politics, the 33-year-old with the magic name should win the Democratic primary in the 8th Congressional District of James Michael Curley, John F. Kennedy and Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. The district, predicts House Speaker O'Neill, is "Kennedy country."

Joe and his sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is running for Congress in Maryland's 2nd district, are the first of their generation of Kennedys to try for elective office.

But, after leading by a wide margin in the polls since the day he announced, Joe Kennedy has suddenly found himself in a tight race with state Sen. George Bachrach, a scrappy campaigner who attacks Kennedy for "ducking" debates and advertises himself as the most liberal candidate.

One independent poll last week showed Bachrach within 6 percentage points of Kennedy, with former Boston mayoral candidate Mel King, Democratic activist James Roosevelt and others trailing far behind. Kennedy campaign manager Chuck McDermott, while still predicting victory, said Bachrach "has the momentum."

Winning the Sept. 16 Democratic primary is tantamount to election in this heavily Democratic district.

Last Wednesday, while his rivals were on Harvard Square debating such issues as "the feminization of poverty," Kennedy was in the recreation room of a nearby high-rise, telling jokes, kissing women, invoking the name of his grandmother Rose and flashing the famous toothy grin at a coffee for middle-income tenants.

He recalled working for an antipoverty program in Washington, D.C., founded under his uncle's presidency and later known as the Community Services Administration. "It was a bunch of government bureaucrats that were much more interested in maintaining the poor in poverty because that would justify their own jobs," he said.

"And that's not what I was taught this government or Democratic Party should be standing for. We should try to embody the spirit of independence," he added.

The anti-Washington, antigovernment theme runs though Kennedy's speeches, a message tailored to ethnic blue-collar workers who fill the two-story row houses of Somerville, East Boston and Charlestown.

"My strong suit is with ordinary, hard-working families," not the "squeaky wheels" who populate Harvard Square, Beacon Hill and other yuppie bastions, Kennedy said. Polls show him beating Bachrach 4 to 1 among those with a high school degree or less, while Bachrach leads 2 to 1 among college graduates. Women lean overwhelmingly toward Kennedy, men toward Bachrach.

Kennedy favors the death penalty, advocates competition among hospitals to reduce health-care costs, supports private/public partnerships to build housing and was the only candidate to approve of President Reagan's bombing of Libya.

"If Robert Kennedy were alive today, he would not be voting for Joe," said Steve Pearlstein, a Bachrach adviser.

Kennedy -- who told one interviewer, "I hate that word 'legacy' " -- counters, "My father didn't have a great time with the liberals. A lot of liberals didn't like Robert Kennedy."

Fifteen when his father was assassinated in 1968, Joe Kennedy had a troubled scholastic career, attending three prep schools and three colleges before graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in paralegal education.

In 1973, he made national headlines when a jeep he was driving on Nantucket overturned, leaving a girl paralyzed. Kennedy was convicted of reckless driving and fined $100.

In the last seven years, however, he has made a success of a nonprofit company that sells low-cost heating oil to state fuel-assistance programs, and, since oil prices dropped, has spun off into a profit-making corporation that did nearly $1 billion in oil trading last year.

The Citizens Energy Corp. gave Kennedy a powerful issue to run on. "At Citizens Energy, I learned how to help those in need without leaving a trail of debt," his fliers boast. "In Washington, there's no reason they can't learn also."

Bachrach, 34, a man with a quick mind and more of a knack for political organization than for pressing the flesh, has raised about $560,000, half of what Kennedy has. While his legislative record is sparse, he makes mileage from being a self-described "incorrigible" who has challenged the state Senate leadership.

Half of Kennedy's money has been raised out of state, leading Bachrach to exult, "Let the other candidate hobnob with Jane Fonda in California and Andy Warhol in New York. George Bachrach is more comfortable having a beer with Joe Taverna down at the Paddock on Pearl Street in Somerville."

Bachrach has attended all 42 issues forums organized in the district, charging that Kennedy skipped half of them because "he's not terribly comfortable with the issues."

Kennedy said, "I'm maybe not as good a talker. I grew up going to parochial schools with 50 or 60 kids and one nun . . . . Academia never really caught my interest in a big way." But, he added, "Political leadership is what counts."

As the race heats up, it grows more personal, in the tradition of Boston's brawling politics. Globe columnist Mike Barnicle attacked Bachrach, who is single, as "the latest example of Bachelor Politics . . . . Many of Bachrach's supporters have 1.4 children and a Perrier bubbler in the kitchen." Politicians like Bachrach, Barnicle wrote, "don't have to worry about things like a summer job for a son or the dent caused by the cost of Pampers." Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr ridiculed Kennedy as a "spoiled rich kid" who threatens to "punch out campaign workers for his uncle" -- a reference to an incident in Edward Kennedy's 1982 reelection campaign -- and "scream{s} at airline clerks, 'Do you know who I am?' "

Ethnic loyalties are also a factor. Kennedy, married and the father of twin sons, plays his Irish Catholicism to the hilt. Bachrach, although the district is less than 2 percent Jewish, harkens back to his refugee parents in a television ad.

At Wednesday's coffee, Margaret Hanafin, a retired sales clerk, said simply, "I was always with the Kennedys -- all my life."

Fred Fantini, a school committee member, supports Kennedy because "It's practical: When he walks into a room, people want to cooperate with him. We need federal funds in this district."

But residents say the building as a whole will go for Bachrach, who worked hard to get bus service for them. "Kennedy is flying high, goodbye," said Marion Bucewicz, a retired secretary. "If he wins, you'll never see him again. He's young. He hasn't much experience. He's trying to start at the top."

© 1986 The Washington Post

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