Joseph Kennedy leaving politics, will return to head energy firm Massachusetts legislator says he will concentrate on family after tragic year

March 14, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts, once a rising figure in the Democratic Party, announced yesterday that after a long and tragic year for his family, he is leaving politics.

The retirement of the late Robert F. Kennedy's eldest son -- the first member of his family to quit public office -- thins the ranks of the new generation of Kennedys in politics. Among those who remain is Joseph Kennedy's older sister, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland. Townsend is running for re-election on the Democratic ticket of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

While Joseph Kennedy, 45, left the door open for a possible return to politics, the six-term congressman made clear that he was eager to leave the public stage and enter the private sector. The need to attend to his family, especially after the recent death of his brother Michael, was paramount in his decision, he said at a news conference in Boston.

Kennedy will head the nonprofit energy company that he helped found 20 years ago, and which was run by Michael Kennedy until he died in a skiing accident on New Year's Eve.

"This last year has brought me a new recognition of our own individual vulnerabilities and vagaries of life," Kennedy said. "Because of the death of my brother Michael, I want to focus as well on my responsibilities to my own family, both my immediate family and my larger one."

A year ago, Kennedy's political star was burning brighter than ever. He had achieved respectability in Democratic politics, overcoming much of the nay-saying that had pegged him as a dilettante who had capitalized on the family name to win a House seat once occupied by his uncle John F. Kennedy and by former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr.

From his seat on the House Banking and Financial Services Committee, Kennedy had pursued a pro-labor liberal agenda, seeking to preserve and expand public housing for the poor, thwart cuts to social programs and retarget budget cutters to programs such as timber-road construction and NASA's space station.

For a time, he had been widely considered the front-runner in the race for Massachusetts governor this year. But in March 1997, Kennedy's former wife, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, published a book accusing him of trying to force her into granting an annulment of their marriage. Within a week of publication, Kennedy's brother Michael was accused of having carried on an affair with a teen-age baby-sitter. That summer, his cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. wrote a magazine column that labeled Joseph and Michael "poster boys for bad behavior."

In August, with his poll numbers falling, Joseph Kennedy withdrew from the governor's contest but pledged to run for congressional re-election in 1998. As headlines subsided in late 1997, Massachusetts politics watchers speculated that Kennedy might rejoin a crowded field to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, said Phil Sharp, a former Democratic congressman who lectures at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

But his brother's death on a Colorado ski slope was apparently the last straw, Sharp said.

Instead, Kennedy will return to the private sector, to become chairman of Citizens Energy Corp., a nonprofit heating assistance venture. "Public service is not limited to public life," Kennedy said, reiterating that he would not run for governor.

The decision, Sharp said, caught Massachusetts and Washington by surprise.

"I know the decision to leave elective office was difficult for Joe," Townsend said in a statement. "He has been an outstanding leader for Massachusetts and the country for 12 years. I understand and respect his decision, and I know he will bring the same vision, compassion and effectiveness back to Citizens Energy, which he founded nearly 20 years ago."

His departure still leaves plenty of Kennedys in politics. His uncle, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, is in the Senate, and Senator Kennedy's 31-year-old son, Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, serves in the House. Mark K. Shriver, the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is a Maryland General Assembly delegate from Montgomery County. And Jean Kennedy Smith, another sister of the slain Kennedy brothers, is the Clinton administration's ambassador to Ireland.

Senator Kennedy called his nephew Joseph "one of Congress' most powerful voices for helping those in need."

"I respect his decision and his strong dedication to Citizens Energy, but I'll miss him very, very much," the elder Kennedy said.

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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