5 Things to Know About RFK's Grandson Rep. Joe Kennedy III

The Kennedy grandson is stepping into an even bigger political spotlight

Joe Kennedy III grew up with the world talking about his famous family.

Now the Massachusetts congressman and red-headed grandson of Robert F. Kennedy (and great-nephew of former President John F. Kennedy) is early in the next phase of his own political career — which is putting him in an even bigger spotlight.

On Tuesday night, Kennedy, 39, will face off against Sen. Ed Markey in their first televised debate ahead of a primary vote on Sept. 1.

Kennedy, a four-term representative for Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, announced last September that he was mounting a primary challenge against Markey, a fellow Democrat, for Markey’s Senate seat. (Local station WGBH will host their debate on Tuesday at 7 p.m ET.)

Here are five things to know about Kennedy.

His Place in the Family Dynasty

Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy II, served as a U.S. representative for Massachusetts’ 8th Congressional District for more than 10 years. And then of course there are his grandfather and great uncles: President Kennedy, Sens. Robert and Ted Kennedy. (The former also served as attorney general.).

In fact, the younger Kennedy began his political career in 2006, when he worked on his uncle Ted’s re-election campaign.

He opened up about growing up Kennedy in a 2017 interview with Town & Country: “People come up every day and usually say very nice things about my family, but sometimes not. You get both.”

“Look, my family means different things to different folks,” he continued. “I think for most people they have very fond memories and believe my family made important contributions to the country. And I happen to believe so too, and I’m grateful when people do mention that and share their stories: ‘I shook your grandfather’s hand,’ or JFK’s hand, or ‘I met your Uncle Teddy.’ “

Joseph P. Kennedy III
Rep. Joe Kennedy III takes the stage before introducing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during her event announcing her official bid for President on February 9, 2019, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Scott Eisen/Getty
Joseph P. Kennedy III
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty

His Time in the Peace Corps

Shortly after graduating from Stanford University in 2003, Kennedy served in the Peace Corps for two years. He was stationed in the Dominican Republic where he helped improve working conditions and grow local tourism. He also became fluent in Spanish.

“For all of the experiences I’ve had in my life, there hasn’t been one that’s been more impactful for me,” he told Jimmy Kimmel last year.

Law School Sweethearts

Kennedy met his wife, health policy lawyer Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, in now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s class at Harvard Law School. Warren had embarrassed him in front of the other students on his first day of law school when she asked him the definition of a complicated legal term and he didn’t know the answer, he recalled to ABC News in 2016.

“No ‘hi,’ no ‘good morning,’ just — boom,” Kennedy said then. “Luckily for me there was a cute girl in the second to last row, who I still convinced to marry me after that.”

Kennedy and Birchfield became study partners, fell in love and married in 2012. They have two children together: Eleanor “Ellie”, 4, and James, 2.

Joseph P. Kennedy III
Joe Kennedy and wife Lauren Birchfield Kennedy. Mike Coppola/Getty

Sweet Tooth

Kennedy, whose family has long been shadowed by struggles with addiction, doesn’t drink alcohol — but he has other sugary vices. His beverages of choice are Diet Coke and coffee, according to The Boston Globe.

His abstention earned him the nickname “milkman” in college, the newspaper reported.

“I didn’t drink when I was in college — and I still don’t,” Kennedy once said in an interview with the Hazelden Betty Ford foundation.

“On our lacrosse team trips, if we stopped for a meal at an establishment where alcohol was served, my teammates who were of age would order a drink for themselves and a tall glass of milk for me,” he said then. “It was all in good fun, especially since I made sure they picked up the tab.”

Speaking Up About Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Kennedy is a vocal advocate on mental health issues and strengthening policies to monitor and treat substance abuse disorder.

His work has helped expand mental health coverage for children and pregnant women as well as improve addiction treatment and prescription drug monitoring.

One of the initiatives Kennedy is working on is creating safe injection sites in Massachusetts. His cousin Saoirse Kennedy Hill died last August at 22 of an accidental drug overdose at the family’s compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

“We love you Saoirse,” he tweeted soon after, “and always will.”

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