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Our One Hundredth: Kennedy Promises West Presence. What about His District’s Frontier?…

Our One Hundredth is an occasional series on Massachusetts US Senate elections.

Attleboro Station in the district Kennedy represents.

Joe! Cleanup in Aisle Attleboro! (WMP&I)

ATTLEBORO—A park runs along a new road abutting the commuter rail station lot here. The area used to be drenched in the toxic muck from its years as the city’s Public Works yard. Nearby, crews are still prepping land that had been Attleboro’s dump as part of a $1.6 million restoration project.

“This was the city landfill, 1930’s 1940’s,” said Rick Correia, chair of the Attleboro Redevelopment Authority.

“We’ve taken millions of tons of trash out of here to make this property developable,” Correia continued. Among the finds were hospital records from the 1950’s. “You would think that you couldn’t read it. It was perfect!”

Correia credits Congressman Joseph Kennedy, III and his office for helping to secure brownfield cleanup funds like these. However, he is quick to note that it is not just Kennedy. His staff—like District Director Lisa Nelson—has made the difference.

“The district director for Congressman Kennedy’s office is with us every step of the way. That’s important,” Correia said.

Kennedy is now locked in a tight battle with Senator Ed Markey for the Democratic US Senate nomination. A central component of his pitch, especially in Western Massachusetts, has been a promise to show up and be present.

Attention is catnip to voters in the 413 and Kennedy has tried mightily to cement assurance he will deliver it. Markey and his campaign firmly contest that he does not provide enough presence already. Among the examples, they cite are his several visits throughout Western Massachusetts during the campaign and in the last month alone. His campaign recently distributed a map to show what he had done for communities across the region.

Like Senator Elizabeth Warren, Markey has staff in the 413. His Western Mass Regional Director Melissa Olsen work out of the old Federal Building in Springfield. In June, he hired former Holyoke City Councilor Jossie Valentin to be his State Policy Advisor, overseeing a broad array of issues.

To judge Kennedy’s promise, one could look to his district’s own frontier. His 4th Congressional district balloons southward from tony Boston suburbs like Newton and Wellesley to less affluent Southeastern Massachusetts municipalities like Attleboro and Fall River. That southern region shares many traits—smaller population, lower voter turnout and deindustrialization—Western Massachusetts has relative to the commonwealth as a whole.

Kennedy has promised to support all of Massachusetts’s regions.

Kennedy in Springfield

Cong. Kennedy in Mason Square last week. (WMP&I)

“And that comes with coming into local communities, understanding what their needs are, understanding what their assets are, and supporting those local developments,” he said in a recent interview.

Compared to suburbs that ring Boston—before COVID-19 scuttled the state convention, Markey was cleaning up among delegates there—Kennedy has considerable strength along the Rhode Island border.

There are limits, however. While many here back the congressman’s Senate bid, Markey has backing from many regional pols including Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux. Kennedy’s decision to challenge Markey irked many institutional figures like Democratic town committee members, even those who had been fans of Joe.

Yet, observers say, the support for Kennedy down here is genuine and reflects actual gratitude for the work he has done in the community.

Marcia Szymanski is the Executive Director of New Hope, Inc., which supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence throughout southeastern Massachusetts. She said Kennedy has been a visible advocate.

“He really listens and he shows up,” Szymanski said in a phone interview. She noted that he co-chairs a committee for a new shelter and often attends New Hope’s fundraisers. Among them is an annual event where men cook and serve the food.

“Joe was always there serving food. He’s always there when we need him,” she said.

Kennedy has given Fall River considerable attention as well. In 2018, he gave the response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union from a high school in the city.

Kennedy in Fall River

Responding to Trump in 2018. (via Twitter/@RepJoeKennedy)

Garth Patterson, Deputy Director of Citizens for Citizens, a Fall River-based community agency, said Kennedy has toured fuel-assistance programs and food pantries. Like many interviewed for this article, Patterson said Kennedy had met with advocates in Washington.

“The Congressman has visited our Food Pantry program and brought boxes of food with no media,” Patterson wrote in an email. He added that Kennedy and Congressman Bill Keating, who also represents Fall River as well as New Bedford, recently wrote a letter “urging the USDA review allocation protocols to ensure more equitable distribution of USDA purchased food” to those cities.

The American Prospect, in an article feting 4th District candidate Ihssane Leckey, alleged that he only checked into the South once annually. The article argued that Leckey, who entered the race before Kennedy announced his Senate bid, could capitalize on this. The whole field to succeed Kennedy comes from the north. Her campaign did not respond an inquiry about whether this factored into her decision to run.

For Ed Hurley, the President of the Hockamock YMCA, there has been no short supply of Kennedy. His organization operates YMCA facilities in Foxborough, Franklin & North Attleborough and programs in communities like Milford. Kennedy has visited summer meals program and even brought his college roommate Jason Collins to a basketball program.

“From the time that Congressman Kennedy took office, he has been a great friend and frequent visitor to our YMCA,” he said.

Hurley, who has been with the Y for 27 years, said James McGovern represented Greater Attleboro very well before redistricting. After new districts became effective in 2012, the transition to Kennedy was “seamless.”

Still, many emphasized the importance of Kennedy’s staff.

In an earlier interview, Correia, the redevelopment authority chair, explained that Kennedy has “basically been the only one I’ve walked the streets of Attleboro with to take a look at the projects here.”

Attleboro DPW Park

From polluted public works yard to Attleboro park. (WMP&I)

Later, driving around downtown Attleboro, Correia was pointing out various buildings and plots of land in need of brownfield cleanup or had been recently slated for redevelopment. The urban renewal plan is 14 years old, but funding it is tricky. A brownfield working group meets regularly to game out how to obtain funds. Enter Nelson, the district director and area native who works out of Kennedy’s satellite office here.

Rather than meeting and then reaching out to Kennedy’s office for help, Correia said Nelson attends those brownfield meetings. Thus, Kennedy’s office already knows what matching funds the city and ARA have to leverage and  can make calls to “shake the trees” as needed.

The work has received attention from state agencies. The commonwealth owns developable land near the train station, less than an hour from Boston or Providence. The MBTA has no money to clean up land, but it is closely eyeing the cleanups and budding transit-oriented development. The MBTA does not want to miss the redevelopment train.

“I don’t want anybody to think that we see Joe Kennedy every day and we’ve got shaking hands and arms around each other. You see him once in a while when he comes down here and he needs to walk through,” Correia said.

However, he again emphasized Nelson as a “conduit” to the congressman. “She has been a great district director.”

Speaking to WMP&I, Kennedy said he wanted “staff that is tied to the community, that represents community, that also has the mandate and flexibility to be out in that community so that you’re listening.”

Szymanski, the New Hope Executive Director, also praised Kennedy’s staff and their work.

“It’s easy for people to say we’ll look into that. Often times there is very little follow through,” she said. From Kennedys’ office, “There is follow up and follow through.”

She pointed to his office’s advocacy to keep funding going into the Victims of Crime Act. Normally fines from white collar prosecutions fund the act, which assists victims of both non-violent and violent crime. But Trump’s Justice Department has pursued these less vigorously, undermining funding for the act.

Attleboro building

Next in Attleboro? (WMP&I)

If Kennedy has tended to his district’s periphery, that does not mean Markey has ignored the commonwealth’s outer realms. That subject remains in contention. It will fall to the 413’s voters—or at least those who value visibility from senators—to determine whether Markey has been scarce or not.

Though most interviewed for this story affirmed personal support for Kennedy, his service to his region does not seem in doubt. His assurance of attention to further-flung areas has precedent.

Hurley, the YMCA manager, attested to Kennedy’s engagement with the region. During a regular visit he would be meeting with staff and the kids, who eagerly interacted with him.

“Next thing you know, he’s behind the counter preparing the meals for the kids,” he said. “You can’t fool kids.”