Rhode Island: First District|
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D)
Last Updated July 14, 2003
The 1st Congressional District is the eastern half of Rhode Island, east of Narragansett Bay, a line that cuts through Providence and then proceeds west and north to the Massachusetts-Connecticut-Rhode Island border. It includes much of Providence (including elite East Side and College Hill around Brown University) and all of next-door Pawtucket whose Slater Mill is known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. The onetime textile mill towns of the Blackstone Valley, Woonsocket and Central Falls are also in the 1st, along with high-income Barrington and Bristol and, south on the ocean, the old city of Newport, with its restored 18th century houses and the summer ''cottages'' that are really palaces. Newport was once home to the America's Cup races and now hosts a famous jazz festival; it is also the site of the oldest synagogue in North America, to whose congregation George Washington declared that the United States gives "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." Ethnically, this district is the more French-Canadian and the less Italian of the two Rhode Island districts; politically, it is strongly Democratic.
The congressman from the 1st District is Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat elected in 1994. Patrick Kennedy was born in 1967, his father Edward Kennedy's fifth year in the Senate; a week after his second birthday came the terrible accident at Chappaquiddick. He grew up in McLean, Virginia, and had a somewhat troubled youth, spending time in a drug rehabilitation clinic in 1986 before enrolling at Providence College, at 20, in 1987. Almost immediately, in 1988, he ran for a seat in the state House and beat the longtime incumbent John Skeffington as the tiny (population 9,800) district was inundated with visits by Kennedy family members and funds raised by the Kennedy national fundraising network. He became chairman of the Rules Committee in 1992, a year after spending the now-infamous Easter weekend in Palm Beach with his father and cousin William Kennedy Smith. In 1994, when the 1st District's Congressman Ron Machtley ran for governor, Kennedy decided to run for Congress. Kennedy had an attractive and energetic Republican opponent, Kevin Vigilante, a doctor who worked with handicapped orphans in Romania and with female prison inmates infected with HIV. Vigilante was a moderate on issues and raised enough to spend $803,000. But Kennedy had the advantages of money and his family name, and won 54%-46% in a Republican year.
In the House Kennedy has had a liberal voting record and has proven an excitable if not always eloquent debater. He started off by avoiding national media and working on local issues, from the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport to visas for Portuguese immigrants. He voted for the partial-birth abortion ban and unsuccessfully backed casino gambling rights for the Narragansett Indians. He has been strongly opposed to Fidel Castro, whom he blames for the death of his uncle John F. Kennedy; he voted for the Helms-Burton Act and backed the 2000 bill that would have made Elian Gonzalez a U.S. citizen. He has strongly supported gun control--another issue with family reverberations--and embarrassed himself in June 1999 when he told reporters House Democrats had "written off the rural areas" because of gun control. In February 2001 he sought permanent residence status for Liberian refugees, many of whom live in Rhode Island.
After winning re-election by 69%-28% in 1996, he took on a more combative role and seemed to be eyeing a race for the Senate seat held by John Chafee. He criticized Chafee sharply for several votes but Chafee fought back gamely, returning often to the state, working hard on local projects, and his standing in the polls, never weak, slowly rose. Meanwhile, the harshness of Kennedy's attacks evidently grated; his job approval fell from 62% to 44% during the year. In 1998 Kennedy's career took another turn. In April he said he wanted a seat on Appropriations--not a likely goal if he intended to seek only one more term in the House. He struck up a friendship with Minority Leader Dick Gephardt; Kennedy let it be known that he would support Gephardt for president against Al Gore. When Gephardt decided not to run for president, but to concentrate on helping Democrats win a House majority, he enlisted Kennedy as a key ally. In November 1998, after Kennedy easily won reelection, Gephardt named him chairman of the DCCC. A few days later Kennedy announced what was already pretty plain, that he would not run for the Senate.
As DCCC chairman, Kennedy excelled not as a strategist but as a fundraiser. He traveled indefatigably around the country to fundraisers, and made yeoman efforts to raise soft money, even while calling for campaign finance legislation that would outlaw it. As a result, the DCCC in 1999 and 2000 raised nearly $50 million in soft money, reaching parity with its Republican counterpart, the NRCC; the NRCC raised more hard money, but Kennedy vastly reduced the disadvantage his party labored under in the 1996 and 1998 cycles. He was less successful in other respects. In May 2000 he brought a RICO racketeering suit against Republican Whip Tom DeLay, arguing that he was extorting contributions from various groups. But some Democrats as well as many Republicans said that this was a misuse of the RICO statute, and after DeLay threatened to take depositions of every House Democrat, the suit was dropped. Nor were Democrats successful in their efforts to regain a majority in the House. They needed only a net gain of six seats, and they benefited from Gephardt's success in persuading senior Democrats and incumbents who held their districts more through personal popularity than party strength to run for one more term. But voters in 2000, as in 1998 and 1996, were in a pro-incumbent mood, and it proved hard to persuade them to oust Republican incumbents. Despite Gephardt's and Kennedy's efforts to recruit locally strong candidates, Democrats won only nine of the 35 open seats. A week after the election, Kennedy announced he would not serve another term as DCCC chairman. Gephardt tried to change his mind, but did not succeed.
Instead he seemed to be moving from national politics to concentration on Rhode Island, where he had spent only 40 days in 1999 and 2000, and where his standing was decline because of a series of imbroglios. In March 2000, he shoved an airport security guard in Los Angeles, sending her backward and jostling the metal detector archway. A police complaint was filed, but the Los Angeles city attorney decided against prosecution. In an informal hearing in May 2000, Kennedy apologized to the woman. But she sued him in March 2001, and Kennedy said his insurance company would handle the suit. The insurance company, it appeared, had already been busy settling claims against Kennedy by owners of sailboats he had chartered. In August 1999 a rented boat required assistance from the Coast Guard after becoming entangled in fishing nets, and suffered several thousand dollars damage; Kennedy docked the boat and drove off, leaving his security deposit to pay for it. In July 2000, the Coast Guard was summoned to a boat Kennedy had rented; it was revealed in November 2000 that Kennedy had ruined the engine and damaged the rigging. In November 2000 his insurance company settled a claim that he had damaged a 42-foot sloop rented in Mystic, Connecticut, and abandoned it off Martha's Vineyard in August 2000. None of this hurt him in the 2000 election. Against a Republican who spent $9,000, he won 67%-33%. But his job approval in the district fell from 63% in February 2000 to 42% in September 2001. Republicans were talking about making a serious challenge in 2002.
In January 2001 Kennedy took back the seat on Appropriations to which he had been named in 1998, but from which he had taken a leave of absence to chair the DCCC. He worked on some other legislation, co-sponsoring the mental health parity bill which passed in the Senate but did not come to a vote in the House, but he mostly concentrated on getting federal money, especially defense dollars, for Rhode Island. In the 2002 campaign Kennedy claimed he had brought $90 million to the district, more per capita, he boasted, than his father's colleague and erstwhile rival Robert Byrd. His involvement in military issues may help to explain his differences with his father on the B-1 bomber and the Iraq war resolution, both of which Patrick Kennedy supported. He spoke often about Iraq with his father, who asked him sharp questions about his stand but didn't seem perturbed by it.
Three Republicans ran for the seat. The early favorites were former state Human Services Director Christine Ferguson and Michael Battles, a former Army Ranger. But the winner of the primary, with 38% of the vote, was the most conservative candidate, David Rogers, a Portsmouth technical analyst and former Navy Seal. He raised money through direct mail--you can raise a lot that way running against a Kennedy--and ultimately spent $2 million. Rogers attacked Kennedy for holding a fundraiser in April in Harrah's in Las Vegas and for paying his chief of staff an extra $40,000 for campaign work; the man resigned the congressional staff job in September. That month Rogers reported that someone had loosened all the lugnuts on his tire and that his campaign manager's windshield was smashed and laptop stolen. Kennedy called a talk show in October and told Rogers that he had concocted the story. Kennedy ran ads portraying Rogers as a friend of the National Rifle Association and questioning his stand on prescription drugs. Rogers ran ads asking, "How does Patrick Kennedy feel about airport security?" and showing a tape of the LAX incident and another saying his behavior with the rented boats was "arrogant, unstable and embarrassing." Kennedy's standing seems to have improved as the year went on, as he spent time in the state (Rhode Island is small enough that people expect to see their officeholders) and argued that he was bringing in money. In November he won 60%-37%.
Patrick Kennedy's political career has taken several courses. At first it seemed he was headed to a lifetime Senate seat, like his father; but he turned aside from running for the Chafee seat. Then he seemed to be a transforming figure in national politics, when he was chairman of the DCCC; but when his standing with voters declined, he backed away from that. Now he seems to be that stock figure, the long-serving congressman who quietly and behind the scenes funnels federal money into his district for many years. He did take some part in national politics in January 2003, when he endorsed Dick Gephardt for president. But instead of flying with him around the country, he asked him to come up to Rhode Island and invited all the local Democratic politicians.
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- Appropriations (18th of 29 D): Commerce, Justice, State & Judiciary; Labor, HHS & Education.
|Group Ratings (More Info)|
|National Journal Ratings
For National Journal's complete 2002 Vote Ratings, as well as previous ratings dating back to 1995, please click here.|
Key Votes Of The 107th Congress
|1. Approve Bush Tax Cuts
|2. Limit Patients' Bill of Rights
|3. Campaign Finance Reform
|4. Ban ANWR Development
|5. Faith-Based Charities
|6. Bar Gays in the Boy Scouts
| 7. Ban Partial-Birth Abortion
| 8. Arm Commercial Pilots
| 9. Trade Promotion Authority
|10. Bar Funds for Intl. Court
|11. Authorize Force in Iraq
|12. Deny Home. Sec. Dept. Union
||Patrick Kennedy (D)
|David Rogers (R)
||Patrick Kennedy (D)
||Patrick Kennedy (D)
|Stephen Cabral (R)
Prior winning percentages:
1998 (67%); 1996 (69%); 1994 (54%)
For 1992 and 1996 presidential results in the First District, please see the Almanac 2000 online. Please note that these older returns reflect district lines as they existed prior to 2002 redistricting.
- Cook Partisan Voting Index: D +17
- District Size: 565 square miles
- Population in 2000: 524,157; 95.5% urban; 4.5% rural
- Median Household Income: $40,616; 11.9% are below the poverty line
- Occupation: 23.2% blue collar; 61.3% white collar; 15.5% gray collar; 12.5% military veterans
- Race/Ethnic Origin:
0.3% Amer. Indian,
2.3% Two+ races,
7.5% Hispanic origin
- Click here for statewide demographic data.
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