With a jab at Governor Mitt Romney, Joseph P. Kennedy II yesterday declared he will not run for governor next year, an announcement that is sure to disappoint some Democrats seeking to reclaim the office but that gives other potential candidates a chance to begin laying the groundwork for their campaigns.
"I have no intention of running for governor," said Kennedy, the 52-year-old former Massachusetts congressman, who has been operating his nonprofit fuel assistance program since he gave up his seat in 1998. "I am not looking to get back into elective office."
"I am not trying to equivocate at all," Kennedy said, when pressed by reporters as to whether he has completely ruled out the possibility of jumping into the race at some point in the future. "You make these decisions about this issue and then you move on."
At a press conference in South Boston to tout a $15 million fuel-assistance bill before the Legislature, Kennedy said he was "happily doing my work" at Citizens Energy Corporation, was enjoying his lifestyle as a private citizen, and did not want to plunge back into public life.
For each gubernatorial race since 1990, the question -- would Kennedy run? -- has loomed over the Democratic Party's early primary campaigns, often freezing others from joining the races until he announced his decision.
Because of Kennedy's popularity and near-celebrity status, some leaders and activists in the Democratic Party, which has not won a governor's race in the Bay State since 1986, had hoped this year the answer would be yes, feeling that he represented their best chance to defeat Romney.
His comments came just hours after Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who is telling supporters he is committed to a race for governor, gave his first major campaign speech, in which he attacked Romney and his governing style.
Reilly spoke to an overflow crowd at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, rapping the governor for what he described as a divisive leadership style while avoiding direct disagreement with the governor's policies and even mention of his name.
At the South Boston event, Kennedy also tweaked Romney, saying he felt the governor, while appearing to be a "very decent, nice fellow," is not fully engaged in his job and is aloof to the problems of "vulnerable people" in society.
"He doesn't come across as engaged and as comfortable in the job as you might think after a couple of years," Kennedy said. "He basically does the job, and I just don't know how enthusiastically."
"I think it would be terrific, if there were events where some of the more vulnerable people . . . felt like there were issues that they could talk with him about," he said.
Kennedy said he had invited Romney to attend the press conference but the governor declined. "Yes, I am disappointed," he said.
He said the governor's absence at events like yesterday's fuel assistance press conference highlighted what he said is Romney's lack of commitment to the poor and the elderly.
"That's what's missing," he said. He noted the presence of three Democratic lawmakers -- state Senators Jack Hart of South Boston and Robert O'Leary of Barnstable, and state Representative Brian P. Wallace of South Boston -- who were pushing for the legislation.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney appreciated the invitation to Kennedy's event but couldn't attend because he had a meeting at the Federal Reserve Bank with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and business leaders to discuss how to bring more jobs to the state. Fehrnstrom also dismissed Kennedy's suggestion that Romney isn't fully engaged in his job.
"Mitt Romney is the most active, engaged, and results-oriented governor in recent Massachusetts history," he said. "Because of his leadership, the fiscal crisis has been solved, the unemployment rate has come down, and it's no longer business as usual on Beacon Hill."
Earlier in the day, Reilly attacked Romney's governing style.
Reilly told the chamber breakfast that Massachusetts has been unable to solve its problems because "too often there has been finger-pointing when there needs to be cooperation," and he criticized "politics that divide instead of bringing us together."
Ferhnstrom said the governor will be working with the Legislature in a bipartisan fashion on health care reform.
"The governor will do his job, and the attorney general should focus on doing his job, which is supposed to be winning cases in court," he said.