Sen. Tom Kennedy '03: Ever True to His Roots
October 21, 2011
by Peter F. Stevens
Boston Irish Reporter
Massachusetts State Sen. Thomas P. Kennedy has a reputation as a politician who has always remained true to his self-professed "working¬class Democrat" roots. Through both geography - Brockton's blue-collar Ward 2 - and his own triumph over adversity, Kennedy has proven to be one of Beacon Hill's staunchest and most effective advocates for the poor, the mentally and physically challenged, the elderly, and all whose voices are too often neglected or ignored, especially when budget-cuts rule the day.
That Tom Kennedy works his politics from his wheelchair is a well-known fact, the result of a 1971 accident that left him a quadriplegic. Still, to speak with Kennedy for even a short time reveals that the man who started out to become a Catholic priest but ended up in the State Senate would have proven a fighter for society's neediest in either vocation.
Tom Kennedy was born in Ward 2, the same neighborhood that legendary boxer RockyMarciano called home. Today, he lives in the house that his Irish immigrant grandparents bought before World War I with his 101-year-old mother, Mary Cruise Kennedy. Educated by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth at St. Patrick's Grammar School, he graduated in 1969 from Cardinal Spellman High School, which was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Determined to become a priest, Kennedy then entered the missionary order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, but the 1971 accident intervened. After grueling months of rehabilitation in hospital settings where he adapted to using a wheelchair, he finally returned to the family home on Winthrop Street in 1973.
Left to wonder what he would do, Kennedy's life was changed through the persuasive powers of family friend and Brockton Mayor David Crosby, who convinced the former seminarian that he could thrive on Crosby's staff as Brockton's ombudsman, or citizen representative. From 1974 to1978, Kennedy flourished in the post. His political ascent began in earnest that last year when he was elected as a City Councillor from Ward 2, a position he held onto for eight years, proving himself one of the board's most popular, effective, and toughest members on behalf of his neighbors. Then, Congressman Brian Donnelly persuaded the councillor to take on a new and expanded position as congressional legislative aide in Donnelly's Brockton district office. Kennedy's acumen in constituent services was invaluable to the congressman and the people of Brockton.In 1983, Kennedy ran against and defeated ten other Democratic candidates for the state representative seat in the 9th Plymouth District. To this day, he evinces pride that all of his opponents in the Democratic primary field heartily endorsed him in the general election.
Over the next 20 years, Kennedy carved out legislative successes marked by care and compassion as well as toughness on behalf of the neediest people not only in his own district, but also throughout the commonwealth. He held such influential positions as chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, vice-chairman of the powerful Committee on Ways and Means and assistant majority leader.
After moving to the Senate in the 2008 election, his constituency expanded to include the city of Brockton, parts of East Bridgewater and Easton, and the towns of Halifax, Hanover, Hanson, and Whitman, Kennedy has had an impact much like the one in the House, serving as co-chair of the Election Laws Committee, Ways and Means, the Consumer Protection & Professional Licensure Committee, among others.
A graduate of Stonehill College, the senator later earned a master's degree from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His numerous civic and community awards include the Jefferson Cup Award 2004 from the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Providers' Council 2010 Legislator of the Year, and The Better Life Award from the Massachusetts Senior Care Association "for his outstanding leadership in promoting quality long term care services for the elderly and persons with disabilities in Massachusetts."
With such a packed legislative agenda, one might think that Kennedy has scant time left over, but he remains deeply immersed in his hometown's civic and community boards and programs. His local posts include seats on the Board of Directors of the New England Sinai Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, the New England Board of Higher Education, and the Fuller Craft Museum, along with membership in the Knights of Columbus and the Brockton Area Arc. All of these help him stay in tune with his neighborhood and constituents.
BIR: Have your Brockton and Irish roots always been cornerstones for you personally and politically?
Kennedy: There's no doubt that they help define me. My mom, Mary, is the eldest of nine children. Her mom, Maggie, came from Co. Mayo, and her dad, Peter Cruise, hailed from Co. Roscommon. As with so many young women in the Irish families of the day, she had to help take care of her siblings, and she didn't marry until 1941, late for the era. My dad's family, the Kennedys, came from Nova Scotia - earlier by way of Ireland - in 1925, and his family spoke Gaelic. When we were kids, we went to my granddad's farm in Nova Scotia in the summer.
Our upbringing was deeply Irish. The men all belonged to the AOH, and people were defined in many ways by where in Ireland they'd come from - my babysitter Mrs. Martin from across the street was always described as "from the North," for example.
My Mom and three other family members went to Ireland in 1965 to visit - the first of the "American cousins" to "go back" - and got a huge welcome. She's been over six times, and I've gone nine times. Her correspondence with relatives there over the years has featured letters from Ireland with real shamrocks in the envelopes. No doubt that she's the Irish matriarch of the family. Our house in Brockton still serves as a way station for family members from all over the place. In Ireland, my mom's knowledge of farm life surprised and delighted her relatives there. Those summer days on my grandfather's farm in Nova Scotia taught all of us where to step when there's livestock around.
BIR: After your accident, in 1971, what prompted your decision to enter politics?
Kennedy: I could not continue as a priest, but I always intended to go back to college. In 1973, I was accepted at Wright College, Ohio, the only school at the time able to fully handle disabled students east of the Mississippi. They had a special dorm, with nursing and premed students to assist the disabled, but I had to wait until the second semester, in January, before I could start. I was in a real rut. Then, in November, Mayor David Crosby came to see me and offered me a job on his staff.
I said, "I can barely write my name - how can I do this job?"
He was insistent and talked me into it. He was a terrific guy, and for me, that visit has turned out to be truly divine Providence. It's no exaggeration to say that he gave me my big break - I admired him so much.
As Brockton's ombudsman, I found I had a real knack for problem-solving. I learned the ropes and learned that politics was a way in which I could help, could make a difference.
Another key thing I learned was that people you helped never forgot it and gave you their friendship and their support in return, which are so key to any public servant who wants to make a difference. In my years as ombudsman, I was working to help neighbors and constituents, and the people were so good to me.
BIR: How has the economic downturn that began in 2008 affected your own area, but also the Legislature?
Kennedy: It has been nothing short of brutal. In hard times - and these are the hardest, in my view - the poor, the handicapped, the elderly, and everyone else who can least afford it get hit the hardest. Their voices are the weakest, drowned outby those with more influence. Those are the people I'm fighting for, and while the reality is that there will be programs and budgets slashed, you still fight for the key programs, still fight for those who can't always fight for themselves. That's where my working-class Democrat, working-class Irish-American roots kick in.
BIR: How has your move from the House to the Senate changed your approach?
Kennedy: Being a state senator was always a long-time dream of mine. There's little question that there's a difference between the two chambers. The adage about being a bigger fish in the legislative pond holds true in the Senate. The caucus system works marvelously in the Senate - that's due in great part to President [Theresa] Murray. She listens and lets everyone have his or her say. She has reversed herself several times when the consensus from the rest of the body is a bit different. That's been an eye-opener for me and speaks volumes about the Senate. Simply put, I have more voice in the Senate.
As a senator, Kennedy asserts, "My priorities have always focused on being an open, accessible, and dependable legislator. I pledge to be earnest, diligent and conscientious in serving the people of the 2nd Plymouth and Bristol District. My constituency will always have my undivided commitment and utmost attention. I have a dedicated and experienced staff that assists me in working on issues that are important to the good people of the district and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
That approach is the same that made him a force in the House.
BIR: What goals/priorities are piled highest on your plate now and in the years to come?
Kennedy: They unquestionably remain my commitment to social programs that work, that deliver all or most of what they should. In hard times, these programs become too vulnerable, prey for those preaching the mantra of "cuts" and reduced government. The word "entitlements" is linked to government waste, and it's so unfair to those who simply can't survive without help.
I'm not afraid to say that social programs are my thing. Government not only has a role to play in people's lives, but also a responsibility to those who are hurting through no fault of their own. The crux of my philosophy, my life, is that the neediest need a voice. I try to be one of those voices.
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