After years of prodding, the son of the late U.S. senator from Massachusetts has finally decided to make his first bid for elected office by running for state senate in Connecticut.
Hundreds, including state officials and numerous television cameras, turned out Tuesday for Kennedy's official announcement, which drew standing ovations from the crowd that gathered at a Branford library.
Kennedy invoked his famous family, saying he was proud of its fight for social justice and fairness. He said his father, a liberal lion of the Senate who died in 2009, believed in building consensus and he shares that philosophy.
"We need people in government, both Democrat and Republican, who are able to build bridges and find common ground," Kennedy said while joined on stage by his wife and two children.
Kennedy, whose voice boomed like his father's at times, revealed that the elder Kennedy was among those who had encouraged him to run for office over the years. But he said he wanted to raise his family and develop his own expertise on the issues before running.
Kennedy, a health care lawyer who lives in Branford, serves on the board of the American Association of People with Disabilities. He said a life of advocacy grew from the loss of his leg to cancer as a child.
Kennedy recalled the horror he felt when his father told him at age 12 that doctors would have to amputate his leg. He said he thought his life was over but, in time, the experience enlightened him to the needs of others.
When Kennedy met another boy who lost his leg and learned he couldn't afford an artificial one, Kennedy said he resolved to do something with his life and make sure others did not have to experience such hardship.
Patrick Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island for 16 years until he retired in 2011, said Monday his brother's life was transformed when he lost his leg. He said his brother became a "profile in courage" — the phrase that was the title of a book by their uncle, former President John F. Kennedy — by surviving and later becoming a champion for people with disabilities.
Kennedy said he wants to go to Hartford in part to make sure all children have access to mental health services.
Kennedy, 52, is seeking the Democratic nomination for the 12th Senatorial District representing towns near New Haven, a lower profile seat than the U.S. Senate, where his name has been mentioned as a possible candidate. Kennedy said he believes he can make an impact at the state level.
Darrell West, a former Brown University professor who wrote a book on Patrick Kennedy, said the decision makes sense.
"Even if your last name is Kennedy you have to establish yourself," said West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "It still creates the opportunities to run for higher office down the road."
Ted Kennedy Jr. spoke to hundreds of mourners at his father's funeral Mass in Boston in 2009, his voice breaking as he recalled how his father helped him climb a hill to sled as he was adjusting to his artificial leg. That experience, he said, taught him that even the most profound losses are survivable.
West said that speech put the younger Kennedy on the national radar.
"The skill with which he delivered the eulogy gave him greater credibility to run for office," West said.
There are no other declared candidates in the race. Republicans have vowed to vigorously contest the seat.
State Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. said his party has several quality candidates interested in running. Last month, Labriola said he believed the district was "trending Republican."
The 12th District is represented by retiring Guilford Democrat Edward Meyer. It encompasses Branford, Durham, Guilford, Killingworth, Madison and North Branford.