A Kennedy jab greets new senator

Embattled R.I. Democrat says Brown is in lockstep with GOP

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / February 6, 2010

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US Representative Patrick Kennedy - who faces a Republican challenger and slipping popularity, according to a new poll - threw the Kennedys’ first stone at newly elected US Senator Scott Brown, calling his candidacy “a joke.’’

The Rhode Island Democrat was the first of the Kennedy family to openly criticize the newly sworn in Brown, who succeeded the congressman’s father, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy. The younger Kennedy slammed Brown for pressing to be sworn in early, a move that Democrats believe was timed so that Brown could vote against President Obama’s nominee to the National Labor Relations Board.

“Brown’s whole candidacy was shown to be a joke today when he was sworn in early to cast his first vote as an objection to Obama’s appointment to the NLRB,’’ Kennedy told a blog for the congressional newspaper, The Hill, on Thursday. He suggested that a vote against the nominee would disappoint many of Brown’s supporters.

“Seven out of 10 of Brown’s voters were labor households and he stressed that he was independent and while he was originally scheduled to be sworn in next week, they moved it up to today so he could cast his first vote, the most antilabor, the most anti-what his constituents thought they were voting for when they voted for him,’’ Kennedy said.

The comments put immediate heat on the last Kennedy in Congress who, the same day, faced discouraging poll numbers and a campaign kickoff by a Republican challenger to the seat he has held for 16 years. Some critics saw his statements as being driven by that pressure.

“Patrick Kennedy’s desperate remarks are an insult to the same voters who revered his uncle and the sure sign of a flailing candidate with abysmal poll numbers,’’ said Jennifer Nassour, the chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

But Rhode Island State Representative John J. Loughlin II, who formally announced his long-planned campaign against Kennedy on Thursday, took no credit for Kennedy’s outburst.

“I’ve seen Congressman Kennedy make some pretty outrageous statements before he ever even knew who I was,’’ Loughlin said in an interview. “I don’t think you can attribute that to my candidacy or anything else. That’s what Congressman Kennedy does.’’

Loughlin, 50, is a state legislator and a commercial producer who spent about 20 years in the National Guard. A three-term lawmaker, he serves as minority whip of the Republican House caucus, which has six members. Kennedy, who has held his seat since 1994, has often been a flashpoint for controversy, most recently clashing with Rhode Island Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who denied him communion over his support for abortion rights. Kennedy was supporting health care reform with a measure that provided for abortion rights and criticized the church for opposing the legislation.

“You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life-saving health care? I thought they were prolife,’ Kennedy said at the time.

A poll released Thursday night by WPRI-TV (Channel 12) showed 62 percent of voters statewide gave the eight-term congressman an unfavorable job rating.

Just 35 percent of respondents in Kennedy’s district said they would vote to reelect him. Meanwhile, 31 percent said they would consider a different candidate and 28 percent said they would vote to replace him if the election were held today. The poll was conducted between Jan. 27 and Jan. 31 and had a margin of error of at least 3.8 percentage points.

“The voters of Rhode Island seem angry and upset, and they seem to be taking it out on the elected officials in terms of job performance and willingness to look at somebody else,’’ said pollster Joseph Fleming. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to vote for them, and we saw what happened in Massachusetts. All this says is there’s a potential for a good race.’’

A spokeswoman for Kennedy did not return phone calls for comment.

The remarks were the first flash of anger from a member of the Kennedy family, which saw the seat held for 47 years by liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy won by Brown, a conservative Republican who ran on a pledge of defeating the health care overhaul Kennedy championed. Last week, former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II acknowledged that his decision to sit out the race “wasn’t the greatest decision I ever made in my life,’’ but did not disparage the Republican, whose surge to success stunned political observers nationwide.

Brown has told Republican leaders that he intends to be independent and would not always be a solid Republican vote. He has denied trying to accelerate his swearing in to block Craig Becker, an Obama nominee to the labor relations board. Representative Patrick Kennedy charged otherwise.

“This is where he shows that when they need him, he’s in the tank for the Republicans,’’ Kennedy said.

Brown’s spokesman Felix Browne said that the new senator wanted to get to work for Massachusetts families in creating jobs.

“He won’t be sidetracked by negative partisan attacks that do nothing to help Massachusetts families find work,’’ Browne said.