For Kennedy, another threshold

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / June 29, 2008

When he was 19, Thomas P. Kennedy, a first-year seminarian in New York state, fell while washing windows and broke his neck. He lost the use of his arms and legs, and for the next three years was in and out of hospitals.

When he finally was settled at home in Brockton, he received an unexpected offer. The newly elected mayor, David Crosby, invited Kennedy to join his staff. The two had never met, but a friend of Kennedy's family had been a big supporter of Crosby.

The job would change Kennedy's life.

"It made me feel I was worth something to someone somewhere," he recalled. "At that time, I wasn't able to do anything. I could barely write my name."

Kennedy thrived in politics. Campaigning door-to-door in a wheelchair, he was elected to the City Council in 1977, and five years later won a 10-person scramble for a state representative seat, a position he has held ever since.

The 57-year-old Democrat, one of a small number of quadriplegics in elective office in the United States, is on the threshold of a new achievement. He is running unopposed for the state Senate in the Second Plymouth and Bristol District.

Barring an upset by a write-in candidate, Kennedy should be sworn in next January, representing Brockton, Whitman, Halifax, Hanson, and Hanover, and parts of Easton and East Bridgewater.

"I'm going to run a full campaign with a headquarters, 'dear friend' cards, general mailings, visibilities, lawn signs, bumper stickers, telephone calls," Kennedy said. "I don't want to overdo it so people feel they are being pestered, but I also don't want anyone to think that I take it for granted."

Senator Robert S. Creedon Jr. is giving up the seat after six terms to run for Plymouth County clerk of courts.

That no one in either party is competing with Kennedy for a highly coveted office is an indication of Kennedy's political stature.

"He has gained a very good reputation in the House and around Brockton," said Brockton Mayor James E. Harrington, a longtime friend and ally of Kennedy.

"He's the kind of guy if you call him, he always gets back to you. He's very good with constituent services."

On Beacon Hill, Kennedy is known as a thoughtful and savvy legislator. Representative Frank M. Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat who has served in the House with Kennedy for 25 years, said lawmakers stop what they are doing when Kennedy rolls down the aisle and takes a microphone next to the podium.

"He commands attention," said Hynes. "What he says gets heard."

Kennedy's cheerful demeanor, not his disability, defines him. He greets visitors by extending his arm, although he cannot grasp with his hand. He has a low, gruff voice and a warm, almost playful manner.

Before his injury, he had planned to become a priest, but he gave up that dream when he learned he could not be ordained then without the ability to use his hands, which he would need to give the sacraments.

He sees few obstacles to his calling as a politician. He says almost all public buildings are accessible, and with help from volunteers, he campaigns door-to-door.

"Obviously there are some places I can't get into," Kennedy said. "I can't walk up to the third floor of an apartment building and knock on the door. I can't go to a baseball field and mix and mingle with the parents. Outside of that, though, it's not really a problem."

Said Hynes, "If someone had the sense that a person with a disability would be consumed by it, when you meet Tommy Kennedy, he puts that myth to the fire."

A serious leg infection three years ago required a series of surgeries and left him hospitalized for nine months. He has bounced back, though, and says he is in good health now.

Kennedy said he has gotten support as a member of the Disability Foundation, an international organization of elected officials with disabilities. It includes Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan and US Representative James Langevin of Rhode Island, both of whom are quadriplegics.

Kennedy lives with his 98-year-old mother in the house his grandfather, a native of Nova Scotia, bought in 1914 in Brockton's Ward 2. He has a longtime girlfriend, Clare Holmgren, a nurse who owns a home on the other side of town.

They became officially engaged a couple of years ago but have not made wedding plans. "She's wonderful," Kennedy said of Holmgren. "She's my lifeline."

When Kennedy was growing up, his neighborhood was mostly Italian and Irish. He lived two streets from boxing champion Rocky Marciano. The neighborhood now is predominantly Haitian and Cape Verdean immigrants. On Beacon Hill, Kennedy has had political ups and downs. Shortly after entering the House, he won a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, then a few years later became chairman of the Post Audit and Oversight Committee, another influential panel.

In 1996, he was on the losing side in a speakership struggle and was returned to the rank and file. He remained there until this February, when House Speaker Sal DiMasi named him to a leadership post as vice chairman of the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee.

He is eager to serve in the Senate, where he will be one of 40 members instead of one of 160 in the House. Also, he is proud to assume the post held by his late cousin and mentor, Anna Buckley, who was a state senator from Brockton in the 1970s and 1980s.

"I'm very excited. I've been gearing up for this," he said.

As a politician, Kennedy has tried to avoid playing what might be called the disability card. His campaign photos always show him from the waist up. And when he lost his House chairmanship in 1996 and was being shunted to a tiny basement office, he discouraged press coverage that would have portrayed him as a victim.

"I recognized that's the way the game is played," he said. While he is sympathetic to the plight of others with disabilities and has supported programs for the disabled, he has never portrayed himself as a leader of the cause.

"When I came here, I looked around and saw there have been people who have been deeply involved in the rights of disabled for years. I have no business coming in and challenging them for the leadership role."

Robert Preer can be reached at

One of a small number of quadriplegics in elective office in the United States, Thomas P. Kennedy is now is on the threshold of a new achievement. The 57-year-old Democrat is running unopposed for the state Senate in the Second Plymouth and Bristol District.

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