With Kennedy out, R.I. voters say change is in the air

Representative Patrick Kennedy didn’t “let the name down,’’ said Diana Jeffrey. Representative Patrick Kennedy didn’t “let the name down,’’ said Diana Jeffrey. (Photos By Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 13, 2010

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. - He was a blue-blooded liberal who bonded with his blue-collar constituents, a scion of the country’s leading political dynasty who made people feel as if he was one of them. Blessed with the Kennedy name in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, he won elections in landslides.

Even Patrick Kennedy’s personal struggles, including highly publicized battles with depression and drug addiction, earned as much sympathy as scorn. To some supporters, his flaws made him real.

Yet when people in this hard-luck mill city heard this week that Kennedy, their congressman since 1994, had decided not to seek reelection this fall, many acknowledged that Kennedy’s popularity had slipped as his political missteps piled up. After events of the past few months - the death of his father, Edward M. Kennedy, and seeing the elder Kennedy’s Senate seat won by Republican Scott Brown - even steadfast supporters said the writing was on the wall.

“I always liked him, but I think people are ready for a change,’’ said Joe Davis, a 35-year-old forklift driver from Cumberland, just up the hill from Kennedy’s district headquarters. “Even hard-core Democrats think it’s about time. We don’t want to see the seat go to a Republican.’’

With anti-incumbent fervor seemingly on the rise, Kennedy appeared vulnerable in the November election. Still, some supporters took his decision hard and said the downturn in his political fortunes was regrettable. Many, such as 48-year-old William Haddad, said that Kennedy had helped them personally and that they would miss him as their representative.

“He’s a good guy,’’ Haddad said. “I voted for him every time, and I’d like to see him stay. Everybody makes mistakes, but I still think he’s a class act.’’

Haddad said he had never forgotten how many years ago Kennedy had helped him navigate the bureaucracy involved in receiving disability benefits after he was hit by a cement truck.

But even in a district that had elected Kennedy eight times - in 2008, he won with close to 70 percent of the vote - some were happy to see him go.

Citing Kennedy’s often tumultuous personal life and proclivity for political gaffes, they said it was well past time for a change.

“He’s got too much going on in his personal life and has just been getting by on the Kennedy name,’’ said Phyllis Maynard, 51. “With the economy the way it is, we need someone who’s going to fight for us.’’

In a downtown marked by neglect in empty storefronts and ice-covered sidewalks, many said voters are fed up with politics as usual, pointing to Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts. Veteran incumbents like Kennedy were probably victims of that wrath, they said.

“We need a change in Rhode Island; we need jobs,’’ said Gary Ethier, 50. “Kennedy’s part of the old guard, the same old faces doing the same old thing.’’

But just down the street, others mourned the fading of the old guard.

For as long as anyone could remember, a Kennedy had served in Congress. Without one, things would feel different, more uncertain.

“The end of an era,’’ Diana Jeffrey, 48, said outside a downtown coffee shop. “He didn’t let the name down.’’

Many residents were unsure whether Kennedy’s decision had more to do with politics or his personal life, but said his departure clears the way for an intriguing race this fall.

“This is a Democratic state,’’ said Stephen Gerstenblatt, a 63-year-old salesman from Cranston. “But people are getting fed up.’’

Others said they still felt compassion for Kennedy. Unlike most politicians, he seemed humble, almost frail, many said. In a way, that was part of his appeal, they said.

“Although he’s part of the Kennedy family, he seems genuine,’’ Dennis McNamee, 62, said as he waited in the cold for the bus. “Like a real guy.’’