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An Interview with Joe Kennedy III, Representative from MA-4

Joseph (Joe) Kennedy III, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts’ 4th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before running for Congress, Kennedy was a prosecutor and Peace Corps volunteer. He is the son of former U.S. Representative Joe Kennedy II and the grandson of former Attorney General and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy. In January, Rep. Kennedy delivered the Democratic Party’s official response to President Trump’s State of the Union address. The Politic’s David Edimo spoke with Rep. Kennedy recently to discuss his decision to enter public service and his time in Congress.

The Politic: I wanted to start with your life in college. You graduated from Stanford in 2003, and I imagine at that point a lot of your peers were entering the corporate world. Why and how do you choose to enter the Peace Corps?

Joe Kennedy III: I wasn’t quite ready for a desk job when I was finishing up school. A bunch of my classmates were going into I-Banking and management consulting jobs, and I just wasn’t ready to sit behind a desk. I wanted to go out in the world, and I figured it was a good time to see what else was out there. I’ve been very fortunate over the course of my life, and I wanted to give back in some way. If you look at the opportunities that combine doing something on your own and a project that was yours, traveling, giving back, and not a desk job, Peace Corps actually comes up to the top of that list pretty quickly. And it certainly did all that!

Do you think your time in the Peace Corps affects the way you view the world today?

Without question. It was one of the most important formative experiences I had, and it’s something I draw on every day as a member of Congress.

After law school, you chose to work as an assistant district attorney. Why were you interested in working as a prosecutor?

I had spent a lot of time in law school in a legal aid clinic doing legal services work, and I saw how important our court system was and how critical it is that people have access to adequate representation. I spent one of my summers interning in a district attorney’s office and saw how critical it was when local prosecutors were given the responsibility and the opportunity to look at their jobs as trying to serve a problem.

The boss I had said clearly, “Your job is not to try to throw someone in jail for as long as you can and throw away the key. Almost everybody that’s going to come before you—in the most part—are going to have some issue, whether that’s substance abuse, an addiction, or a bad night and a bad decision, or something else. You can use the tools you have to address the underlying issue. Your job is to do that, and if you can do that and address the issue that gave rise to the crime, then you should.”

And I thought how important that was as a prosecutor to be able to set the frame of the debate and the discussion for whether you were going to go to trial, work something out, cut somebody a break, or whether somebody had a bunch of [past crimes] and you needed to up the penalty. But looking at the job holistically as not just punishment, but rehabilitation—because people eventually get out of prison at some point—is important. If they weren’t prepared to go back and re-enter society, that was going to be a problem, too. So you use your tools to address that underlying challenge, and I think that’s the way people should go about that job.

Do any of the cases that you tried stick out to you as particularly poignant?

I remember a bunch of them. Some of them were particularly serious. There was a stabbing after a drug deal that went bad that I tried. Some of them featured individuals whose personalities bordered on the absurd. There were questions about stolen rusty lawnmowers and ones that were scary and dangerous. I tried a lot of domestic violence cases. And seeing just how challenging those are and dangerous and isolating are those circumstances can be for victims…I remember a bunch of the cases. It was an extraordinary education for me about how the system does and doesn’t work, beyond what you learn in a law school classroom.

Did that work motivate you to run for Congress afterward?

Yeah, absolutely. The big thing I was exposed to in that position was that a lot of the cases I was trying were related to drugs. Specifically, with the opioid epidemic. And there were people roughly my age who were breaking into cars or homes or conducting crimes to try to feed a drug addiction. And when they couldn’t afford it, they would move to heroin [from Percocet and OxyContin] because it was so much cheaper. And yes, they were committing crimes, but they were also sick.

Of course, victims have rights and the perpetrators need punishment, but they also need to get well. If you can address the underlying addiction, you can prevent them from committing another crime. The options that you have as a prosecutor were somewhat limited and we had to do more work upstream in mental health, addiction treatment, and education, and some aspects of criminal justice reform and reentry. That’s one of the big reasons I spend a lot of time working on behavioral health issues.

When you entered the house in 2012, Democrats were in the minority. What was it like to jump into the fray with diminished power despite having a lot of these goals?

[Laughs] It meant that you had to make sure the solutions you were offering were able to find Republican support. You can speak out all day about the solution you would want, but if you believe in the urgency of it, you need to craft solutions Republicans would support because they control the House of Representatives and whether a bill gets a floor vote or not. So, I spent a lot of my time with Republican colleagues. I had to listen to their concerns and address them as best I could. I may be able to say I have the best answer and the right answer. But if the “right answer” is in legislation that’s never going to get signed into law, it’s not exactly an answer.

Do you feel like it has become easier to work in a bipartisan fashion during the Trump administration?

No. No, it certainly has not been.

Have your Republican colleagues become more unwilling to work on legislation or do you think it’s the atmosphere?

The atmosphere created by the President does not help. My Republican colleagues before Trump still needed to get bills signed by a Democratic President. So, they also were willing to work with me and make adjustments to bills to get Democratic support, which would help them get the law signed by a Democratic President. Now they don’t need to. As long as they get enough Republican support, it doesn’t really matter. Of course, they could face a Senate filibuster. But their need to engage Democrats just isn’t quite as big as it used to be. And you add on top of that the environment the president has created and that certainly hasn’t helped.

You’ve demonstrated your independence from the Democratic caucus, sometimes on broader principles and sometimes on the details of implementing certain policies such as marijuana legalization or the implementation of universal health care. How do you feel you’ve positioned yourself relative to other Democrats in the Congress? Do you think it presents difficulties or new opportunities?

I don’t think it presents difficulties. We all share the same values as Democrats. And most of my Republican colleagues share the same values on this. Certainly, Democrats do when it comes to both issues. On universal healthcare, I emphatically believe that every American deserves access to quality and affordable healthcare. I just want to make sure we get the details right when we do so. I think a lot of my colleagues agree on that principle as well. Some of them, when you get down to the nitty-gritty details, will have issues with some of the way that comes up. But when it comes to the principle behind it, we are one hundred percent in line.

When it comes to marijuana, it’s similar. I have concerns about what legalization would do particularly for individuals that suffer from addiction and the impact it would have on youth and adolescents. I want to make sure we’re going about this in a thoughtful, methodical way, because it will obviously have consequences. I think most of my colleagues feel the same way. They might be more forward-leaning on the legalization part. But they’re all—many of them, anyways—certainly for thoughtful and reasonable regulations.

A few weeks ago, you asked some tough questions to Mark Zuckerberg during a House hearing. What do you think the future looks like for Facebook and other social media firms in terms of regulation and oversight?

I think the tech community writ-large needs to give really clear thought to personal privacy and the use of data. I think up until recently, they haven’t. They’ve been able to operate and innovate extraordinarily well and quickly in an environment where consumers don’t really know the extent to which the data they’re generating is being used. But we’re starting to see that data is far more personal than they might have thought, and they are starting to ask questions about who controls it, who gains access to it, and how that data can be manipulated.

These issues first started manifesting themselves as an issue of, “Does government get access to this data?” But some of us have been asking the question to the tech community of, “Concerns about government access to the data is one thing, but private industry has its hands on it, too.” The tech community has to do far more options to empowering users to control the type of data that is generated and how it’s used.

Do you have any advice for Yale students based on your time in college or in public life?

Look, I think that for Yale students, the challenge you have before you is not the lack of opportunity, it’s going to be so many you opportunities in front of you that you don’t know which ones to choose. And students are going to be under pressure to go down the pathway that they think is going to give them the best opportunity to succeed in the long-run. What I have found over the course of my life is that while you are young enough and able enough to have some degree of flexibility, try different things. Do things that will enable you to have an experience that you will learn from and help form your next decision in life. You might be choosing between something that looks great on a resume and something that pushes you out of your comfort zone. I would give a lot of thought to the latter option that’s going to force you look at the world a little bit differently and learn something about yourself and the way you handle circumstances. Because in the long run it’s going to be those experiences that end up informing you about the opportunities you want to take and the direction in which you want to move in your life—and not just what is perceived to be the best short-term opportunity.