The death of Senator Ted Kennedy has set off a wave of emotions amongst Massachusetts residents, including myself. Senator Kennedy, who served as an elected official for 47 years, was such a presence on so many fronts, it’s hard to fully fathom how much he did for the people of Massachusetts and the country. Given the outpouring of grief from citizens who spent hours to pay their respects to Kennedy last week, there is no questioning the impact Senator Kennedy had on the lives of thousands of Massachusetts residents.
I met Senator Kennedy just once, in 2004 at a young professionals’ fundraiser for his re-election campaign. We spoke briefly before his remarks, about the fact that his grandmother on his mother’s side grew up in Acton, my hometown. Despite the relatively small crowd and the informal nature of the event, Kennedy gave an inspiring speech, standing up for Democratic values, talking about the need to improve health care and education for Americans, and ending the Iraq War.
Senator Kennedy was known as the “Liberal Lion.” The term liberal has become so misused, abused, and shunned by some, however, that it is hard to know exactly what it means to highlight Kennedy’s commitment to liberal values. To be a liberal means having a basic belief that government can make a positive difference in people’s lives — but in Kennedy’s work it meant so much more.
Senator Kennedy, through hard work, dedication, and determination, made sure that people’s lives were markedly better than how they started out — improving health care for families, serving the poor, improving access for the disabled, or giving more immigrants across the globe a chance at a better life. Legislation spearheaded or passed through shear will by Senator Kennedy -including the Mental Health Parity Act, the COBRA Act giving workers the ability to continue health insurance after leaving employment, Title I funding for poor schools, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act — made sure of that.
What is not appreciated as much is the economic impact of his work. By including more Americans in mainstream society, worker productivity has dramatically increased. His work in expanding access to health care massively increased the investments that the federal government has made into health research, helping transform the economy and employing of tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents in health care. Making the United States a more welcoming country to people from all five continents helped ensure that the innovation, hard work, and entrepreneurship of so many immigrants made the country even more vibrant and strong. All of this work reinforces part of the liberal vision, which recognizes that in order to create more innovation in our economy, and ensure that new industries continue to thrive in the U.S., government often has to take the lead.
As a legislator, I experienced the same thing as many constituents, legislators, municipal officials, and community groups across the Commonwealth – quite simply, that Senator Kennedy’s office was the place to go to get something done. The senator’s staff was legendary both in Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts for handling thousands of requests for federal funding, social security, immigration problems, and often times with that nice personal touch, no matter the request. My mother reminded me of this recently, when she pointed out that every year when we invited every statewide politician to Acton’s Democratic summer picnic, Senator Kennedy’s office was the only one that would call to explain that the senator could not attend. While this was of course good politics, Senator Kennedy and his staff’s responsiveness to every request reinforced his view that all citizens were to be treated equally, and no call for help was too minor for Kennedy.
As the race to succeed him heats up, we know that there will never be another Ted Kennedy. But as the public begins to consider who will be the state’s next U.S. Senator, Kennedy’s commitment to liberal values, and what that has actually meant for Massachusetts citizens, is an excellent guide for what we should expect in all of our elected officials.