Joseph Kennedy Ends Gubernatorial Bid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 1997; Page A01
BOSTON, Aug. 28Conceding that personal and family problems have crippled his candidacy, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) announced here today that he is abandoning his long-planned run for governor of Massachusetts.
The five-term congressman, the eldest son of Robert F. Kennedy, had been regarded until last spring as all-but unbeatable in next year's gubernatorial election. But messy publicity about the annulment of his first marriage, the alleged affair of his brother Michael with a teenage babysitter and stories of his playing with illegal fireworks that burned his 16-year-old son have combined this year to smudge the image of the heir apparent to the Kennedy dynasty.
Standing beside his second wife, Beth, and surrounded by members of his staff, many of whom were weeping, Kennedy explained in a VFW hall in a working-class corner of Boston that he believed he would never be able to focus his candidacy on issues.
"The race will focus on personal or family questions. It is not fair to my family, it is not fair to the people of Massachusetts and it is not the right thing to do," said Kennedy, 44, who appeared tan and rested from a vacation on Cape Cod, where he said that he had decided to give up a candidacy that has been in the works for eight months.
The Kennedys have faced scandals before, but have always been able to return home to Massachusetts and win. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) has been elected seven times despite questions surrounding the 1969 drowning of a young woman at Chappaquiddick, a divorce and stories about drinking and womanizing.
But the scandals swirling around Joseph and Michael Kennedy this spring and summer were sufficient to alienate a growing number of voters and crack one of the long-time bulwarks of the Kennedy clan the solid wall of mutual support among family members. Early this month John F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the late president, wrote in the pages of his magazine George that his cousins Joseph and Michael are "poster boys for bad behavior."
Polls here have shown Kennedy to be in considerable trouble, both against Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, his main opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor, as well against the two main Republican contenders, acting Gov. Paul Cellucci and state Treasurer Joe Malone.
Kennedy said his decision was based on what is best for his family and the state, not on the polls. But he acknowledged that the polls did not look good.
"We have done polls as I'm sure others have done polls. And honestly, I think there's been a great deal of damage in the last six or eight months in terms of the kind of publicity that's been brought up," said Kennedy. He added that he will run next year for reelection to Congress and analysts said he is likely to win.
Polls in July conducted for the Massachusetts Democratic Party showed Kennedy trailing far behind Harshbarger on questions concerning judgment and character. One question asked Democratic voters which candidate is "solid, smart and uses common sense." Harshbarger got a 72 percent positive response; Kennedy got 24 percent.
"This candidacy was based almost entirely on him being Joe Kennedy, a member of the Kennedy clan," said Democratic political consultant Michael Shea. "There was never a powerful rationale presented for why he should be governor. All of the news this year about Joe has brought up the maturity question, as well as the old questions about the Kennedys and women. For Joe, it is sort of live by the name, die by the name."
The big winner from today's announcement is Harshbarger. He appears to have clear sailing now to the Democratic nomination for governor, while there is likely to be a costly and draining contest between Cellucci and Malone for the Republican nomination.
Asked if this was the best day of his 15 months of running for governor, Harshbarger, 55, exulted in an interview: "Yes! It clears the way for me reach out to supporters of Congressman Kennedy and have them support me."
Kennedy said today that he would support Harshbarger if he is the nominee.
The avalanche of bad personal news that triggered Kennedy's announcement began building in March when the congressman's first wife, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, published a book that accused him of calling her a "nobody" and of bullying her into an annulment. Kennedy felt compelled by bad publicity to make a public apology.
"I'm terribly sorry for any of the mistakes that I made in our relationship," he told reporters in April. "She is the mother of my children. She is the woman who I married and care very, very deeply about."
Before that issue had dropped out of newspapers here, there were front-page reports that Kennedy's younger brother Michael, 39, was separating from his wife, Vicki Gifford, daughter of sports commentator Frank Gifford. Then came the year's biggest blast of horrible news: A Massachusetts district attorney was investigating allegations that Michael Kennedy had had a sexual relationship with the family babysitter, a long-term relationship that reportedly began when she was 14.
The focus of the story soon shifted to what Joseph Kennedy knew about the affair and what he did or did not do to stop it. No hard evidence about the congressman's knowledge of the matter ever surfaced, but the story became such an embarrassment that for several weeks Kennedy hid from reporters in his home state.
Kennedy apologized for his and his brother's conduct at a state Democratic Party issues convention in June and insisted he would still run for governor next year. He had about $1.8 million in his federal campaign account, much of which he figured could be used in a state race.
Finally, after a prosecutor said Michael Kennedy would not be prosecuted, questions emerged again in July about Joseph Kennedy's maturity. While he and his sons were playing at the family's Hyannis Port compound with fireworks, which are illegal in this state, his son Matt was burned when fireworks exploded.
This year's star-crossed chronicle of Kennedy news played into what seems to be a changing view among Massachusetts voters toward the entire family, according to several political analysts here.
"The love affair of Massachusetts with the Kennedys is more complex now than ever before," said Paul Watanabe, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "The passions are very strong. There is a large reservoir of goodwill, but there is also a fairly significant segment of opposition, indeed hatred. Then, a lot of people say to the Kennedys, `Show me what you've got.' "
Watanabe and other analysts here agree that Joseph Kennedy had failed to convince voters that he is a politician with executive abilities. Their views are echoed in polls done in July for the Democratic Party.
But Kennedy associates cautioned against political eulogies for the Kennedy clan, including Joseph Kennedy. "Anyone who prematurely writes off any of them, including Joe, is going to be disappointed by events," said Democratic political consultant Robert M. Shrum, a former aide to Edward Kennedy.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company