Kennedy's name, of course, was his central asset. There was hardly a better entrée to Democratic-fundraising circles. But there was grunt work to be done too. Hundreds of phone calls to be made and scores of mediocre suppers to attend. And Kennedy produced, raising close to $100 million for the Party.
The push fell short in the end — the Republicans would hold on to the House for six more years. But Kennedy's work built goodwill among colleagues and, ultimately, landed him on the Appropriations Committee: a powerful new lever for a congressman intent on bringing home federal dollars.
The new civil-rights fight
Piling up federal contracts, while good politics, is something less than career-defining.
It would take a very public battle with addiction and mental illness to turn the congressman from appropriator to legislator.
Kennedy had admitted to cocaine use and bipolar disorder earlier in his career. But his quest for the mental-health-parity law began, in earnest, at about 2:45 am on May 4, 2006, when he drove his green 1997 Ford Mustang into a security barrier outside the Capitol.
The representative held a press conference 36 hours later. He did not remember the incident, he said. He was addicted to prescription medications and would check into the Mayo Clinic.
Aides advised Kennedy to stay away from public pronouncements on the incident. But out of political calculation or conviction or both, he decided to turn his troubles into the central element of a revamped public persona.
The congressman discussed his addictions in brutal detail. He formed an alliance, personal and political, with then-congressman Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican and recovering alcoholic. And he made his story the driving force in the push for the mental-health-parity bill.
Constituents approached Kennedy to discuss their own hidden troubles. Colleagues in Congress confided in him about their families' addictions. And Kennedy, so awkward on the stump, found his voice.
"I've seen the effects of living in a society where the messages have all been: don't talk, look the other way, and disregard your feelings and spiritual development because it doesn't affect your physical health," he says.
The fight was a catharsis for a congressman who had struggled with his own feelings of shame around mental illness. And for Kennedy, it offered a place in the family's story.
"I grew up thinking, here I come from this amazing family involved in all this social justice and civil rights, you know, and that I was born at the wrong time," he told the Washington Post this year. "I couldn't see the forest for the trees — that this thing was a civil-rights fight."
Or, at least, the closest one might get to such a thing in 2008.
Power in the House
Kennedy's victory could prove difficult to replicate anytime soon.
The mental-health-parity bill was born of a once-in-a-lifetime, headline-grabbing personal crusade. And the congressman is the first to acknowledge that it was his father's maneuvers in the Senate that brought the bill over the finish line.
Moreover, the House, as an institution, presents significant hurdles to rank-and-file achievement. Ordinary members, even those with a famous last name, are just one of 435; true power rests with committee chairmen who spend decades attaining their posts. Kennedy, who ranks 15th among 37 Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, is still a long way from the chair.