Hear Him Roar
by Matt L. Barron
This is the bumper sticker so many of us in Massachusetts have affixed to our cars in one incarnation or another over the better part of my fifty years on this earth. I cast my first vote for Ted Kennedy in 1976—he has always been my senator and his passing got me to thinking of the moments in my political life when our paths had crossed here in our fair commonwealth.
After the Reagan landslide of 1980 when the “New Right” felled some big Democratic congressional timber (Birch Bayh, Frank Church, John Culver, Warren Magnuson, George McGovern, Gaylord Nelson, Herman Talmadge, etc.), they set their sights on names like John Stennis, Bill Proxmire and Ted Kennedy for what they envisioned as a Democratic clear-cut in the 1982 midterms.
After two and a half halcyon years working for the Massachusetts agriculture commissioner and a year landscaping with a good friend, I was back in school to complete my degree. At UMass-Boston, I became head of the Politics Society, the on-campus club of the Political Science Department.
The GOP put a wealthy businessman, Ray Shamie, up against Kennedy in 1982 and Kennedy, coming off his 1980 presidential loss, geared up for a fight. I teamed up with another student whose brother was the head of the powerful Boston Carmen’s Union (they represented all the transit workers at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority or the “T”) and we signed up to coordinate the Kennedy re-election effort at UMass-Boston. We registered several thousand students, organized visibilities along Morrissey Boulevard and made hundreds of GOTV calls that fall.
To my surprise, I was invited to Kennedy’s election night party at a fancy hotel on Boston’s waterfront. That November night, while most of the state’s Democratic establishment was across town reveling in Michael Dukakis’ re-match victory over his 1978 gubernatorial rival, I was rubbing shoulders with the Kennedys as Teddy crushed Shamie 61%-38% and helped erect a speed bump to the Reagan Revolution.
It was heady stuff.
Time passes and new election cycles require the usual suspects to do the usual chores. When Senator Kennedy was up for re-election, I would collect signatures on his nomination papers in the spring in front of the general stores or at the dump and pound the blue and white Kennedy for Senate lawn signs on the country back roads in the fall. And the reasons for my continued support over the years are many.
The Westfield River, which flows through the hilltowns near my home, was the first waterway in the state to be designated as “wild and scenic” back in 1993. But it received the designation under a section of the law that allows for a governor to petition the interior secretary rather than through an act of Congress. As such, the feds don’t give any annual funding to these rivers. Uncle Sam says that the particular state will oversee care and control.
For 11 years I represented my town on an advisory committee that looked out for the wild and scenic segments of the Westfield. We had a long list of projects such as land preservation, public information, trail maintenance, water quality monitoring and not much money to work with. So banding together with other wild and scenic rivers in the northeast, we pushed Congress to up the appropriation for the Partnership Wild and Scenic River line item in the National Park Service’s budget.
The first year we asked Sen. Kennedy to sponsor and circulate the “dear colleague” letter he agreed and once his staffer gave me the news I knew that we would be successful. Ted Kennedy could orchestrate appropriations requests for us back home like Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops or Tom Brady executing a bubble screen pass – flawlessly. Yes, he was a national treasure but he kept Massachusetts at the top of his to do list. And there are literally thousands of examples of Kennedy’s constituent and committee handiwork which will live on in every city and town in this state.
One which I am very proud of is his help in securing the resources to open the first school-based health clinics in rural districts. I was on the staff of my local congressman at the time and Ted carried the ball on the Senate side and with the Office of Rural Health at HHS. It began with three regional school districts spread across parts of three western counties. Janitorial closets and similar spaces in the high schools were converted to clinics and nursing students from the state university were deployed on internships to see and treat the kids. In one district, Gateway Regional, some 20 percent of the kids were uninsured and if one got sick, their parent would have to leave their job in the city, drive up to the school in the boonies, pick up their child and take them to the hospital and then back to school or home, thus ruining the parent’s day. The on-site clinics, so common in urban Massachusetts, really made a big difference in the Bay State hinterlands and Ted Kennedy helped improve health care for this underserved population.
That Kennedy would spend his political career molding remarkable legislation was apparent from his maiden speech on the senate floor in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His imprint was on the Voting Act of 1965: he supported lowering the voting age to allow 18 year olds access to the ballot box; the Kennedy-Hatch law of 1997 provided children’s health care with a new tobacco tax; he championed increases in the minimum wage; the Kennedy-Kassenbaum bill made health insurance portable for American workers; there was the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act; and a 1,200 page education reform act negotiated directly with the second Bush White House. More than three hundred bills written by Senator Kennedy and his staff were made law — an impressive body of work scanning nearly half a century.
And to the Kennedy bashers I have this to say. This week we mourn the passing of an imperfect person as are we all. But he learned and worked and cared enough to try, often succeeding in making his state and our nation a better place. I witnessed his championing the bill that got school based nursing installed at rural schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere. On January 28, 2008 I watched Kennedy endorse then candidate Barack Obama with these words, “With Barack Obama, we will break the old gridlock and finally make health care what it should be in America—a fundamental right for all, not just an expensive privilege for the few.”
The promise of health care for all Americans was Ted Kennedy’s passion and this was to be the year he saw that dream become a reality. Senator Robert Byrd has said the new health care legislation should be named in for Ted Kennedy. I agree. As long as it is a landmark reform bill—a true monument that will have no stone engravings but will be measured by the ease and affordability of access to health care for all Americans. For Senator Kennedy to leave at this moment is nothing less than a wake up call to President Barack Obama and to the Congress of the United States of America.
Stand and deliver a piece of legislation that would make The Lion of the Senate roar with pride.