For a scion of the country’s most famous political dynasty, businessman Chris Kennedy (D) is relatively unknown in many Chicago Democratic circles.
But with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) bowing out of the 2010 Senate race Monday and Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) still leaning toward a gubernatorial bid, Kennedy continues to prepare a campaign for President Barack Obama’s former seat.
Fellow Democratic politicians say they have only met Kennedy on occasion, although many of those interviewed for this story said they walked away with a favorable impression of the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.).
In an interview last week, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) talked about his cousin’s campaign and said he speaks to Chris Kennedy “frequently— about his yet-to-be-announced bid.
“He’s now in the position where he needs to dig some deeper and figure out what’s below the surface and how much of that could translate into turning Chris Kennedy into an election victory,— Rep. Kennedy said.
Chris Kennedy’s name has been publicly tossed around for several political offices in Illinois over the course of the past decade, including for Congress and lieutenant governor, but this is his first time that he appears poised to enter a race. Kennedy was unavailable for comment for this story because an aide said he is not giving any interviews yet.
However, many local Democrats — including his likely primary opponent, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) — say they only know Chris Kennedy from social events and his role in running the family’s successful Merchandise Mart business.
He has not been a complete stranger on the political fundraising circuit either over the years, and he has opened his wallet for many Democratic candidates outside of Illinois, as well as for his relatives’ campaigns.
Chris Kennedy donated a total of $32,250 to the campaigns of 16 federal candidates since 1980, according to CQ MoneyLine. Of those donations, $9,500 was given to members of the Kennedy family running for Congress, including $5,900 to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and $2,000 to his cousin, Rep. Kennedy.
Chris Kennedy has also been generous to Illinois Democrats, giving a total of $26,200 to state politicians since 1998, according to online Illinois election finance records. More than a third of his donations — $9,500 — were to Madigan’s campaigns from 2002 to 2007.
It has been reported that longtime Kennedy ally and City Club President Jay Doherty is advising him on his bid. A message left for Doherty at the City Club was not returned. Kennedy has also tapped AKPD Message and Media, the firm founded by top White House adviser David Axelrod, to do his media for the Senate race and Anzalone Liszt Research to do his polling.
According to a 2001 report in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chris Kennedy was born after his mother, Ethel Kennedy, played six rounds of tennis in Hyannis Port, Mass. Ethel Kennedy reportedly borrowed the helicopter of her brother-in-law, then-President John F. Kennedy, for a ride to the hospital to give birth to her eighth child on July 4, 1963.
Chris Kennedy was raised on the East Coast and attended Boston College, but he moved to Chicago after college and earned a business degree from Northwestern University in 1994. Kennedy began his career at Merchandise Mart Properties as a research analyst, according to an online biography from the Chicago company, and was named president in 2000.
Rep. Kennedy said that he believed his cousin’s greatest challenge would be to “overcome this duality of his low-key demeanor and the necessity of being a very public person— and that he advised him accordingly.
The only announced candidate in the race, Giannoulias, is personally close with Obama and is well-known for being one of his basketball buddies in Illinois. But Rep. Kennedy was bullish about his cousin getting support from the White House in the race, saying nobody had done more to wave the “Obama banner— in the 2008 election than his family.
“A couple hundred grand to Barack and playing hoops on the court with Barack, and you weigh that political capital next to the endorsement of my family for Barack at the critical juncture for his campaign when he did,— Rep. Kennedy said. “And to me, if that were a fight, they’d have to stop it because it’s a slam dunk for the Kennedys.—
In a phone interview, Giannoulias responded to Rep. Kennedy’s statement by touting his long-standing relationship with Obama.
“I’ve been friends with the president for a long time,— Giannoulias said. “He is like a mentor to me. He is one of the reasons I got involved in politics. I don’t want to get into an argument about who knows him better.—
National Democrats continue to woo Madigan because they believe her candidacy would clear the field and assure that the party holds onto the seat. But with the primary less than nine months away, time is of the essence for Kennedy, Madigan and Giannoulias. The incumbent, Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), has not said whether he will run for a full term next year, but bad publicity surrounding his appointment to the seat have raised doubts that he can be a serious contender.
“I think every day you hear people who are thinking about running and who want to run, while everyone is maneuvering, postulating and gossiping,— Giannoulias said. “We’re the only ones talking to voters and doing the things necessary to win a race.—
But even Giannoulias said he has only met Chris Kennedy a couple of times at “social occasions— and does not know him well.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), whose district includes Merchandise Mart, called Kennedy a “pretty regular, solid— man who is “not a media hound.— Davis said he has never talked to Kennedy about running for office and only knows him through community and business functions in the district.
“I don’t know if Chris is going to run,— he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know if any of the half a dozen other people are going to run.—
Still, Davis — who has yet to endorse in 2010 — said having a Kennedy namesake does not hurt in Illinois. A fan of Rep. Kennedy’s positions on social justice issues, Davis said that if a Chris Kennedy is at all similar to his cousin, he’d have his backing.
“If he was like Patrick Kennedy, I’d probably vote for him today,— Davis quipped.