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With the end of 2018, Branford resident Ted Kennedy, Jr., concludes four years as District 12 state senator. He recently met with the The Sound at Branford’s Parthenon Diner to talk about his work on behalf of the district and the state, and what’s ahead for him next. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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Following a productive four years as a state senator, Ted Kennedy, Jr., says his decision to step away from Connecticut’s legislative landscape at the end of 2018 was difficult, but allows him to fully focus on helping to protect disability rights at very critical point in the nation’s history.
In June, Ted, an attorney and advocate for disability rights, was elected as the new board chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), based in Washington, D.C. Even as he readies to go to bat for AAPD, Ted’s still hearing from constituents and others wondering if he plans to return to the world of politics in the future.
“To me, the answer is it’s where I feel like I can make a difference, at this point,” says Ted. “So for right now, I want to focus on the work with [AAPD], and I feel like I can make a really important contribution in that area. In maybe in a few years from now, who knows? I don’t want to close the bar on anything. But it’s not really top of mind right now.”
In February 2018, Ted announced he would not run for a third term as state senator for District 12, which serves Branford, North Branford, Guilford, Madison, Killingworth, and Durham. Now, with just days left in his 2016-’18 term, he’s taking a moment to reflect on what’s been accomplished, what he’s learned from the experience, and what he’ll miss about serving his neighbors as their state senator.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” says Ted, who met recently for a chat at Branford’s Parthenon Diner, a favorite local spot of his. “There’s an intimacy of running for office at the state level that you don’t get when you’re talking about health care policy or disability policy on the national level. You miss the actual interacting with the people part, because [national policy is] more of an intellectual exercise. And I think one of the things that has been really great about serving in the 12th District is the interaction you get with real people and helping them with their real problems. And that’s something that I’ll really miss.”
While he’s moving on to a new mission with AAPD, Ted leaves his role as state senator confident he’s helped to guide some very significant changes for residents of his district and the state. As co-chair of the Senate Environment Committee and vice-chair of the Public Health Committee, Ted introduced and led legislative passage of more than 70 reforms affecting the future of Connecticut’s environment and health care policy, with the majority of those bills receiving overwhelming bipartisan support.
When you take into consideration Connecticut’s 2016-’18 18-18 party split, the importance of reaching across the aisle became even more critical. It’s skill he says he saw modeled by his dad, the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, Sr., and one he’s applied even as the nation has slipped into a larger political divide.
“It’s tough to be in politics today. There’s an anger, a nastiness that’s at a level that we haven’t seen in a long time. But I think there is still a lot of civility and collegiality in the legislature, and I come from that,” says Ted. “I think I learned that from my father. Even though he was the Liberal Lion of the Senate, he would work with [Republican] Senator [John] McCain—and the two of them were great friends—and he’d work with others across the aisle. It seems like almost a bygone era, which is unfortunate, because I think that’s what people want. I think people want their elected officials to come to a consensus and to collaborate”
He’s also enjoyed helping local town leaders with grants for needed projects and programs and working with his shoreline legislative peers in the House of Representatives.
At work in the State Senate, the experience of collaboration and consensus was perhaps most apparent on the Senate Environment Committee, says Ted.
“I think it’s the most bi-partisan committee on the legislature,” he says. “Even though I’m obviously a Democrat, there are many, many Republicans who also want to protect our state parks and who don’t like the plastics that are going into the water because they’re ruining our rivers.”
Laws he’s championed have the state focusing on ways to bring climate change into school curriculums and even the effects of climate change on safety plans for the state’s more than 35 facilities incorporating hazardous waste/chemicals in flood zones.
Most recently, for his leadership and advocacy, Ted received the 2018 Legislative Champion Award from the Connecticut Fund for the Environment for helping to face down environmental concerns in the state’s open spaces, parks, and waters caused by plastics and other pollutants, as well as promoting renewable energy, reducing harmful exposures to toxic chemicals, and for his work in expanding protections for state parks, forests, and open space.
It’s one of a long line of accolades Ted’s received during his four years with the Senate. He says the greatest reward has been leading the passage of some pivotal environmental and health care bills into law, often with added challenges such as the need to figure out how to introduce bills that could become law without placing an additional burden on the state’s over-burdened budget.
“We’ve had to be creative,” he says. “We’ve had to do this all without spending money...Like when talking about new community living options for people with intellectual disabilities, you have to show how that money can actually save money for the state.”
That was the case with another bill (which also happened to cause bit of teasing for Ted, too).
“I was kind of teased for my Cow Power Bill,” he says. “But the reality is this is being done all across the country and all of Europe. People are capturing the animal waste, which otherwise would drain right into the rivers and be a pollutant. And it enables the farmers to actually generate power, and put that power back in the grid.”
A bill allowing for a pilot program to study “cow power” was signed by the governor in 2017, as well as separate bill signed 2017 that included an allowance for agricultural customers to receive incentives (energy credits) for using anaerobic digesters.
Ted says he worked to support not only the district’s agricultural and farming businesses but its many other diverse commercial components, from bio-tech firms to small businesses.
“This district is amazing,” Ted says of the varied types of economic drivers to be found, while noting he also feels we’re missing an opportunity to build on another: tourism.
“Probably one of my regrets is that we weren’t able to do more in terms of boosting tourism for our state,” he says of his time in the legislature. “Because we have a beautiful district here, [and I-95] runs right through the district. There’s millions of people whizzing by right here. If we could just get a fraction of them to pull over, and go to the Guilford Green, have lunch at a restaurant, buy something in one of the stores, spend the day at one of the museums. As a state, we haven’t really prioritized tourism.”
Ted made a considerable effort to craft bills that would have a significant impact on the health and welfare of residents, including those with disabilities and those with mental health and addiction issues. While he helped make gains, he still feels the state needs to do more to address other issues he’s brought to light.
While he’s been successful working in the notion of “sun-shining” or calling for greater transparency in some bills that have made it to law, there is one that got away.
“My biggest regret last session was not passing Bill No. 384 in the house. It passed the Senate. It was a mental health data transparency bill. It was opposed by the health plans, who did not want to disclose. The issue is we don’t have mental health parity in our state, so if you have a mental health or addiction issue, the reality is you do not get treated the same way as [physical] health issues,” says Ted. “We need to make sure people with mental health and addiction issues have access to the same health care. On paper, [insurance companies] cover the most egregious forms of mental health problems, but a lot of these claims are denied at a far greater percentage.”
Cheering on Ted’s effort to have the bill passed was his wife, Katherine “Kiki” Kennedy, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale and a well-known environmental champion (perhaps best known locally for leading the effort to turn back a natural gas platform proposed off Branford in Long Island Sound).
“My wife is busier than me, and she’s on a lot of boards. She’s also very involved, as a psychiatrist, in mental health parity,” says Ted.
The Kennedys raised their two children in Branford and Ted says they have no plans to move to accommodate his role with AAPD.
“My wife and I love this area,” says Ted, adding, during his Senate tenure, “I made a lot of friends and I’ll continue to work and be involved. Some people have said, ‘I hear you’re moving!’ But I’m the board chair [of AAPD], not the executive director, so I do have to go to D.C. [occasionally]..I can take the Acela down.”
Ted says he wants to thank all the District 12 constituents he’s been privileged to represent during his four years in office.
“One of the great things about the job is I’ve gotten to meet so many incredible people,” says Ted. “One of the things I’ve tried to do is really keep an open line of communication. Even before I was officially sworn in, I would go to the public libraries and host these ongoing open office hours and people would come and attend. There would be 20 [or] 30 people who would come and share with me their ideas and thoughts, and many of these conversations led to legislation. And it was a great opportunity for me.”
Ted also wants to encourage others to consider serving in public office, especially in the towns of the 12th District.
“The people here I think want a sort of a common-sense, pragmatic approach to government. People do not like the name-calling and the divisiveness. I meet people every day that are great [for public office]—both Democrats and Republicans—but I think they’re being discouraged, and if that happens, the only people that are going to run for things are those that have their own agenda [and] for all the wrong reasons,” says Ted. “I want people to know how deeply honored I feel to have been their senator, and that I think public service is a great thing to aspire to. I want the students and the people to think of serving in government as a great option for them.”
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