He’s got more Facebook followers than most senators. And he’s left a trail of viral videos that have been watched by millions.
Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III might not cut a high-profile yet in Washington, but his stature is growing among Democratic grassroots activists outside D.C.
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The three-term congressman — who’s slated to deliver his party’s response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday — features in scores of YouTube and Facebook videos, where clips of his remarks and floor speeches have spread like wildfire among progressives.
One of the most popular is from a March committee hearing where Kennedy, citing Scripture, called the GOP health care bill an act of malice, saying “There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury.” That video, posted on his official Facebook page, drew more than 10 million views and nearly a quarter-million shares.
Another Facebook video, featuring him grilling of GOP staffers at the same hearing over cuts to mental health and addiction services, attracted 4.9 million views. A separate floor speech decrying “a worldview that scapegoats the struggling and suffering” got 3 million views on his own page and another 5.9 million on the page of the liberal group CREDO Mobile.
The sharp, crisp and direct criticisms of the Trump administration, delivered with slow-burning intensity, have also burnished Kennedy’s reputation among his congressional colleagues.
“Joe’s voice was just a clear and moral call for us to think about the implication of these decisions for people,” said Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, who entered Congress in the same class as Kennedy. “He’s a rare and unique individual.”
“He doesn’t speak to hear his own voice,” said Kildee. “He really speaks up when it makes a difference.”
The 37-year-old Kennedy’s ability to channel progressive outrage — and his status as a youthful member of one of the nation’s leading political families — has led to a surge in speaking invitations: Following his much-publicized floor speech on health care last March, his office received more than 20 invites, according to a Kennedy campaign source.
Yet of those requests, Kennedy made just two major out-of-state visits last fall — to Michigan and Texas, where his in-laws live.
Kennedy’s Michigan swing last fall combined a little politicking — including stops in Flint and a Ford manufacturing plant in Dearborn, plus fundraisers for Kildee and Rep. Marcy Kaptur — and the keynote speech at a non-partisan health care policy summit.
“I think a lot of people were wondering whether he’d just come in and give a red meat speech. They were wondering what this Kennedy was like,” said Ron Fournier, publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business, which sponsored the summit and for the first time lined up a politician to deliver the keynote.
Kennedy was accompanied on the Michigan trip by his young daughter and wife, who is a health policy lawyer.
“There is a little bit of rockstar, pop-culture quality of ‘There’s a Kennedy,’” Fournier said. “But once he got behind a podium, it’s whether he gives a good speech or not. And he impressed Republicans and Democrats in the room. He impressed them with the substance of his message, not his last name.”
In Texas, Kennedy toured hurricane-ravaged Houston alongside Texas Reps. Beto O’Rourke and Gene Green before heading to Austin to deliver the keynote speech to a packed room of 350 Texas Democrats at the annual Johnson-Jordan dinner.
Interest in Kennedy ran so high that organizers had to drag in an extra table to accommodate everyone — and the congressman delivered, with a speech touching on the legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson and how the modern Democratic Party was born in Texas, said Crystal Kay Perkins, executive director for the Texas Democratic Party.
Perkins said that in her entire tenure with the party, she had never before seen a room of partisans stop everything and give their full attention to their speaker.
“I’ve never been in a room with Democrats where no one left. No one moved. No one talked. It was quiet,” she said.
Kennedy told the crowd that the state is truly a battleground for the party going forward – a message tailored to a receptive audience.
“He gave a powerful speech that was about us. He gets that,” said Perkins. “He gets that Texas is that big prize that could change the party. It’s very refreshing to see somebody come to our state and talk to us about us.”
True to Kennedy’s low-key style, he’ll deliver his State of the Union response in his own congressional district at a vocational technical high school in largely working class Fall River. Over the weekend, organizers moved around heavy machinery and car parts in order to clear enough room to accommodate Kennedy and the audience members on Tuesday night.
Kennedy’s next big speech after Tuesday night won’t come until March 3. Then, he’ll head to Florida for the Broward County Democrats’ annual Obama-Roosevelt Legacy Dinner — the county is home to the biggest concentration of Democrats in the state.