Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts is delivering the response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address next Tuesday night. The 37-year-old, who is serving his third term in the House, has been fairly unknown until recently — but, of course, he comes from a storied line of politicians. His father was in Congress, and he's the grandson of Bobby Kennedy, John F. Kennedy's brother and Attorney General.
“Congressman Kennedy is a relentless fighter for working Americans,” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a press release. “While President Trump has consistently broken his promises to the middle class, Congressman Kennedy profoundly understands the challenges facing hardworking men and women across the country.”
Top party leaders have often put rising stars in the opposition role at SOTU, so we're sure to see more of him in the coming years. The choice of Kennedy belies the values the Democratic Party wants to project at this crucial moment when it is hoping to make major gains in the quickly upcoming midterm elections. In its statement, the party's leadership said, "Democrats are laser-focused on enacting policies to benefit middle-class Americans, not special interests or the wealthiest."
Kennedy has spoken out forcefully against repealing the Affordable Care Act, and in favor of immigrant, refugee, and LGBTQ rights. His voting record is solidly pro-choice and he supports gun restrictions. He called the Republican healthcare-repeal bill an "act of malice" in a noteworthy speech, which got over 10 million views on Facebook.
In his passionate rebuttal to House Speaker Paul Ryan's statement that the bill was an "act of mercy," Kennedy said: "With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read different scripture. The one that I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick. It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us." If he uses this type of rhetoric in his SOTU response, it's sure to garner praise.
Kennedy has, however, worried legalization advocates with his views on recreational pot. "I don’t think marijuana should be legalized," he told Boston magazine in 2016. "If we’re going to say marijuana is a medicine, it needs to be treated like a medicine and regulated like a medicine. But when we look at full-on legalization, the potential danger that marijuana poses particularly to adolescents — I’m not convinced."
Before graduating from Harvard Law School (where Elizabeth Warren was his professor, nbd), Kennedy joined the Peace Corps and worked in the Dominican Republic, where he said he created a union to help tour guides earn higher wages. He also worked for a pro-bono law firm in Boston that helped families avoid foreclosure and created a program for at-risk youth.
In an interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in August, shortly after Trump had tweeted that he wants to ban transgender people from serving in the military (which a federal judge later declared unconstitutional), Kennedy was candid about his feelings.
"Our men and women in uniform...they are willing to risk life and limb for us. They don't discriminate and say, 'I will lay down my life for you but not you,'" he told Noah. "[The GOP's] cries [for freedom] ring hollow if you can't deliver the basic fundamental freedom, which is the freedom to be you."
While the response to Kennedy delivering the post-SOTU speech has generally been a business-as-usual shrug, many see it as a missed opportunity to position a woman or person of color in opposition to Trump — especially given the overwhelming support of women and people of color (not so much white men) for the Democratic Party.
Some say it's tone-deaf of the party to promote yet another heir to a dynasty when there are marginalized voices in the wings waiting to be heard. Kennedy is one of the richest members of Congress, with an estimated worth of between $15 and $55 million.
But for others, he's just what the Democratic Party needs.
Elizabeth Guzmán, who was elected in Virginia's huge blue sweep in November, is delivering the Spanish-language response to SOTU. The Peruvian immigrant is the state's first Latina state delegate.
At least five Democrats will reportedly boycott Trump's address, including Georgia Rep. John Lewis, California Rep. Maxine Waters, Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Several Democratic women confirmed to Refinery29 that they will wear black on Tuesday night in solidarity with #MeToo and Time's Up.
We contacted Joe Kennedy's office for comment and will update this story when we hear back.