For Seven Hopefuls, Politics Is in Their Genetics

Posted March 28, 2012 at 6:31pm

Family political legacies have been around since the days of the Founding Fathers. Just ask the Frelinghuysens or, later, the Kennedys.

In fact, this is the first Congress in almost 50 years that doesn’t have a Kennedy serving — but that’s likely to change come 2013.

Attorney Joseph Kennedy III is one of seven sons of former House Members running for Congress this cycle, a group that will find out in the coming months the pluses and perils that come with being an ex-Congressman’s kid on the campaign trail.

The sons of former Reps. Albert Bustamante (D-Texas), Gary Condit (D-Calif.), Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), Porter Goss (R-Fla.), John Murphy (D-N.Y.) Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) are seeking to follow in their fathers’ footsteps this cycle.

All are running in districts similar or close to the ones represented by their fathers, so they get an automatic boost in name identification among voters. But they also face some unique challenges.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who succeeded his father, former Rep. Bill Clay (D-Mo.), explained that one has to walk a careful line in succeeding a parent.

On one hand, Clay said, “you have to run on your own record. Voters are smart enough to know that these seats cannot be handed off.” But on the other, “don’t run away from your family or your family name,” he said, noting how proud he was of his father’s accomplishments in Congress.

Business consultant and former congressional aide Chauncey Goss (R), running for Florida’s open and heavily Republican 19th district, echoed those sentiments.

“My message is that I’m my own person,” explained Goss, 46, who worked on the House Budget Committee after his father resigned in 2004 to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. “Having said that, I’m very proud of my father … and I’m proud of what he’s done as he’s paved a path for me of public service with integrity.”

In a generational twist, the elder Goss was replaced in Congress by Rep. Connie Mack IV (R), who is now running for the Senate seat his father, ex-Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), once held.

The younger Mack is one of 27 sons or daughters of former Members currently serving in Congress.

Perhaps there’s no one currently serving in Congress who has more of a family legacy than Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). Except for a decade here or there, there’s been a Frelinghuysen in the Congress since its inception. Frederick Frelinghuysen, who served as both a delegate to the Continental Congress and a Senator from 1793 to 1796 was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of the current Congressman.

Weston Wamp, 25, faces a primary battle with freshman Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), the man who succeeded his father. Wamp said he has similar political beliefs as his dad, but would have split with his father and voted against both the No Child Left Behind Act and the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“My dad and I are cut out of the same fabric, which doesn’t make us the same person,” Wamp said.

The 31-year-old Kennedy, meanwhile, became the instant frontrunner when he jumped into the race to succeed retiring Rep. Barney Frank in Massachusetts, not because of his résumé, but because of his last name. On the campaign trail, though, he talks about his vision for the country and the district and only in passing about his family’s legacy, sources said. Kennedy is the prohibitive favorite to win both the primary and the general in the southern Massachusetts district.

Other candidates have a much steeper hill to climb.

Former state legislative aide Chad Condit, running as an independent in California’s Modesto-anchored 10th district, bears the burden of his father’s name.

Scandal-tainted Gary Condit, who lost a 2002 primary against now-Rep. Dennis Cardoza in the wake of the death of Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy, casts a shadow over his son’s campaign.

“The Condit name, obviously, it’s good news/bad news,” said a California Democratic political operative familiar with Modesto. “There’s high recognition on the name, but definitely the Condit brand was severely damaged by how [the former Congressman] handled the Chandra Levy case.”

It probably doesn’t help that the younger Condit, now 44, served as an attack dog on TV for his dad’s losing campaign.

“The Chad Condit campaign will not be participating in any stories or interviews that take away from Gary Condit’s public service record,” the campaign said in a statement to Roll Call.

Another candidate who faces a difficult climb is attorney John Bustamante, 35, who is in a primary battle to take on vulnerable freshman Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco (R-Texas).

After losing re-election in 1992, Bustamante’s father went to prison for violations of the federal RICO Act and served a few years of hard time.

“Even though it was 20 years ago, there are a still a minority of people who remember it and don’t want to have anything to do with my family or my father or anyone with the last name Bustamante,” the younger Bustamante said. But, he added, the majority of people have positive memories of his dad’s Congressional service.

For many candidates, a benefit of the campaign is a certain paternal pride in seeing a second generation strive for federal public service.

“My father travels with me a lot, just because I think once you’re a politician, you’re always a politician. He never has really gotten this out of his system,” Bustamante said. “So my running now has made a 77-year-old man very happy.”

Another unique aspect of Members’ kids running: They know what campaigns will be like.

“If there’s one thing that makes me unique as a candidate,” Wamp said, “it’s not my age, it’s knowing what I’m getting into both in a campaign and in Congress.”

He emphasized that watching his father in Congress influenced him positively, but didn’t give him a rose-colored vision of what being a Member is like. “Through my experience growing up, as his son,” he said, I didn’t see “that it was easy or that it was always fun, but that it was worthwhile.”