Determined to make a difference, Kennedy entered the race against Rep. Jeff Van Drew in January

By Diane Herbst
November 03, 2020 09:10 PM
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Amy and Patrick Kennedy with their children
| Credit: Courtesy Amy Kennedy

In late December, Amy Kennedy made a big decision. 

Kennedy, 41, a former teacher and mom of five young children, had long appreciated the impact that husband Patrick made on mental health issues during his 16 years as a U.S congressman representing Rhode Island. And the impact of his father, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.  

Earlier that month, the Democratic congressman representing Kennedy's area in southern New Jersey defected to become a Republican and pledged his "undying support" for Donald Trump, the day after voting against his impeachment. 

"I hadn't thought about running for office until Van Drew said, 'I pledge my undying support to this president," recalls Kennedy. "And that for me was 'I don't think that's what being a civil servant is about.' "

Determined to make a difference, Kennedy entered the race against Van Drew in January. After winning a tough primary through strong grassroots support, she is now the only Kennedy from the storied political dynasty who could serve in Washington in the new Congress. (Cousin Joe Kennedy III, a congressman from Massachusetts, gave up his seat in a failed bid earlier this year for U.S. senate.)

Returns on Tuesday showed the race was a tight one, even as Kennedy, a centrist Democrat led Van Drew in pre-election polling

"She has run a campaign based on uniting people, listening and learning and being of service to her community," Patrick Kennedy, 53, tells PEOPLE in an email, adding: “Amy certainly doesn’t need any advice from me."

Amy and Patrick Kennedy and their family
| Credit: Courtesy Amy Kennedy

The love story of Amy and Patrick starts by chance.

In March of 2010, he met her at a charity dinner for people with intellectual disabilities held in an Atlantic City casino.

He was there to give a speech and she, a middle school teacher healing from divorce, attended with her mother and godparents. Her father, a special education teacher and local politician, was supposed to attend but wasn't feeling well; he urged Amy to attend instead. 

"After his speech, I went up to Patrick and said, 'Oh, my dad couldn't make it, but he's a big fan, and maybe you could sign this for him? It was a booklet and he wrote a note in there to me too," she recalls. "And then he came around and found us at our table and said, 'Oh, you know, maybe sometime you'll want to bring your class down to Washington?' 

She knew he was flirting. "He said, 'Here's my number, give me a call,'" Kennedy recalls, smiling.  "We talked after that and he said, 'I'd  like to come back up and take you out.' I said 'Okay.'"

By then, Patrick had decided not to run for re-election. His father had passed away the year before "and he just knew it was time for him to leave," she says. "He was ready to do something different, and really focus on his own health." (Patrick has been open about his past struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder.)

"His openness as well as his commitment to always be working toward self discovery and self improvement, that's one thing I think that attracted me to Patrick from the beginning," she says.  "You know, everybody's not kind of on that journey."

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That December, in 2010, after Congress finished its session, Patrick came to the home of Amy's parents for Christmas. At the time, she was living there with her daughter from her first marriage, Harper.  

"Daddy was there for Christmas, then he never left," Patrick and Amy's daughter Nell, 6, chimed in as she sat snuggled next to her mom. Patrick indeed moved in with Amy and her parents. The following summer, the pair married. 

Today, Patrick and Amy live in the spacious home they built in Brigantine, a thin strip of an island in the shadow of Atlantic City. Amy, a fan of HGTV, was its main designer. A sweeping back lawn meets the waters of Brigantine Bay, a serene landscape of roses and honeysuckles, pink and blue hydrangeas, and dune grass bending in the wind. 

They have had four children together — Owen, 8; Nora, 6; Nell, 4, and Marshall, 2 — and Harper is now 12.  

"What he wanted when he left Congress was to start a family and he got that for sure. And so we went all in quick," says Amy. 

"I think it was hard for him to know exactly what it was that was going to give him that kind of fulfillment that he'd been looking for for a long time," she continues. "But he had a sense that it was about, you know, family."

Amy is all about family. She grew up in the nearby town of Absecon, where Amy's parents, Jerry and Leni Savell, and one of her older brothers and his family still live. Her other brother, a member of the Brigantine beach patrol for over 35 years, bought their great grandparents' house four blocks away from Amy. Cousins also live nearby. 

"We're all," she says, "very tight knit." (Nora chimes in: "And Daddy's cousins go to Cape Cod. And we go on their sail boat, it's a big one.")

Growing up, Amy rowed crew (brother Paul is director of Drexel University's crew program) and served as president of her freshman high school class. An avid fan of history and politics, she tagged along with her father as he ran for local political offices. 

Amy Kennedy
| Credit: Courtesy Amy Kennedy

She attended Penn State and roomed with her best friend from childhood, and decided to follow in her mother and father's footsteps to became a teacher. She earned master's degree in environmental science, and has kept up a lifelong hobby of painting. Watercolors of landscapes is her passion.

When Amy's first marriage didn't work out, she and Harper eventually moved in with her parents.  By then, she'd met Patrick.

Amy and this reporter are sitting on her expansive deck facing the water as we talk. The family's motor boat rocks  at the end of a dock extending from the back lawn into the bay. Patrick loves captaining the vessel, towing the children behind in a tube.

That day, Patrick is a few blocks away at the beach with some of the children, a spot where he frequently makes work calls for his advocacy work on mental health, addiction and brain diseases. After leaving teaching about five years ago when thinking about having Nellie, Amy has worked alongside Patrick at the mental health organization he founded, The Kennedy Forum, as its education director. Amy's expertise is on school children and their mental health.  

Once the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, Patrick's frequent travel for work came to a halt. It's enabled him to be home with the children (and Amy) as her campaign shifted from her traversing a huge district across a wide swath of Southern New Jersey to almost all remote.  

"He's been a big support," she says. "It's a really important time to have him nearby and just always on hand to mostly make sure the kids have the attention and focus they need, but for me to just be that support."

During the summer, Amy was oftentimes at the beach with the family, making campaign calls.  Other summers the clan would head up to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port to spend time with Patrick's family. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, they are staying home at "the Shore" as New Jersey residents call the coast.

From afar, the Kennedys have given Amy a lot of support and encouragement, "which is so lovely really," she says. 'They'll say, ''We're behind you, we're excited for you."

Just how far can the Kennedy name help Amy in this race? 

"I think it's actually a double-edged sword," says Matt Hale, professor of political science at Seton Hall University and expert on New Jersey politics. "The Kennedy name is exciting and wonderful for people who are Democrats but an anchor around her neck for people who aren't. I think it's going to be a pretty close race. She certainly is generating a lot of excitement but it is a pretty conservative district."

As Amy enters the final days of her campaign, one focused on environmental protections, mental health and addiction, healthcare, and improving the economy, she also remains centered on her family.  Most nights, after a family dinner, Patrick, Amy and their kids bike to a nearby ice cream parlor. Sundays, they have her extended family over for dinner -- her parents, brothers, their wives, and the 12 grandkids between them. She unwinds before bed by watching HGTV

It's a balancing act that's becoming more common as the numbers of women in Congress swelled after the 2018 election. And Amy's hearing from these congresswomen, many with children, their words of advice, encouragement and support.  

"One person said, 'You'll feel like you're never doing enough — whether it's you're not doing enough for your kids, or you're not doing enough on the campaign," she says, declining to reveal the congresswoman's identity.  "But just know we all feel that."