On February 9, 2019, United States Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) took the stage to carry out a coveted task in Massachusetts politics: introducing U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — his former Harvard Law School professor — as she officially launched her 2020 presidential campaign.
Greeting him with a hug at the podium was Senator Edward J. Markey, Warren’s counterpart (D-Mass.). Markey, who spoke before Kennedy, praised him for “brilliantly” delivering the Democratic response to President Donald J. Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018.
It was a neat and tidy picture: Massachusetts’ three biggest-name Democrats, united around the common cause of electing Elizabeth Warren president.
The trio’s relationship, however, was about to become far more complicated.
Kennedy, who also introduced Warren at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, declared his former professor to be the “leader who will restore the solidarity that Donald Trump stole.”
Seven months later, Kennedy officially announced that he was kicking off a new candidacy of his own, and running in a Democratic primary to unseat Markey — who Warren had already endorsed.
Still, Kennedy said in an interview with The Crimson last week that he is not disappointed Warren endorsed Markey.
“She had endorsed Senator Markey months before I got in this race and I’m not going to speculate as to what she would have done if the timing was different or if I jumped in the race,” Kennedy said. “I’m grateful for the relationship that I have with her and I’m grateful for her commitment to our state and I’m proud of the race that she’s running for president.”
Warren’s endorsement of Markey came just two days after the New York Times reported in August that Kennedy was considering challenging Markey in the Senate election. Kennedy entered the race roughly a month later, in late September.
Despite lacking Warren’s endorsement, Kennedy has continued to campaign for his former Law School mentor. On the campaign trail, he praises her progressive policies and often recounts his memories of being her student at the Law School. Experts note that Kennedy may benefit politically by tying himself to Warren’s candidacy.
Earlier this month, Kennedy stumped for Warren in New Hampshire, holding two events in Exeter, N.H. and Nashua, N.H. separately.
Making a fervent case for Warren in New Hampshire — a state where he is not on the ballot — Kennedy offered nothing but praise for his former professor and prospective colleague in the Senate.
For Sam Kelley, a Kennedy volunteer and Massachusetts resident who traveled to New Hampshire to knock on doors for Warren, Kennedy’s continued support for Warren — despite her endorsement of Markey — is a testament to his leadership.
“I think Democrats in the end always have each other’s backs,” Kelley said. “And I think with Congressman Kennedy still supporting a candidate that he believes in just shows the kind of leaders we have in Massachusetts.”
Kennedy first met Warren while attending the Law School, where she taught him contracts law and bankruptcy law.
Kennedy told The Crimson that he enrolled in Warren’s bankruptcy class in order to be taught by her.
“I took bankruptcy because she was the teacher — not because I had a binding interest in bankruptcy, but because I knew that she could make me look at it differently and teach me something about it that I wouldn’t otherwise get,” Kennedy said.
At the DNC in 2016, Kennedy told the story of his first day in Warren’s class, when she called on him and he had to admit that he did not know the definition of the word assumpsit.
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire this month, he told a version of the story about his first day.
“The lasting contribution that I will make out of my life in public office is, without question, the fact that if you Google the word assumpsit, my picture comes up,” Kennedy said in Nashua.
In an interview, Kennedy said Warren was a “tough” professor.
“What I think became clear over time was not just that she was tough, that she demanded the most out of her students every day, but that what she asked for was your best effort,” he said.
Warren and Kennedy’s relationship improved after his first day blunder. Abbye J. Atkinson, a law school professor at the University of California Berkeley who was in Warren’s section with Kennedy, said that the relationship between the two was “jovial” in class.
Kennedy recalled that he “spent hours” in Warren’s office studying bankruptcy and contracts law. During one office hour appointment, he said he overheard her hurrying to get off the phone with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) so that she could make time for his questions.
“I remember very clearly waiting outside her office for office hours and listening to her on the phone trying to get off the phone call,” Kennedy said.
“That’s a pretty amazing thing that she’d be willing to do that — and that she did do that,” he added. “And it’s why I think her students are so devoted to her — because she made every effort to ensure that they got the attention that they needed to get what they deserved. And not every teacher did that.”
Since Kennedy graduated from the Law School in 2009, his career has moved almost in sync with Warren’s path in politics.
Five months after Warren announced her candidacy for Senate in 2012, Kennedy — then a prosecutor for the Middlesex County district attorney’s office — also announced a bid to join the Massachusetts congressional delegation.
Both ultimately prevailed in their first ever races. Kennedy replaced longtime U.S. Representative Barney Frank in the Massachusetts fourth congressional district, and Warren defeated incumbent Republican Scott P. Brown to capture the seat held for decades by Kennedy’s great-uncle, Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, who died in office in 2009.
Kennedy said in an interview that he and Warren would often consult each other about the difficulties of being rookie candidates.
“We’d obviously trade phone calls all the time and talk it through about the challenge of being first-time candidates,” Kennedy said. “And to be fair, when the Senator ran, the level of scrutiny and attention placed on her was far different the level of scrutiny and attention placed on me.”
“It was an amazing experience to be able to run my first race, obviously, with her at the top of the ticket in Massachusetts,” Kennedy added.
Kennedy and Warren again made leaps together this election cycle, with her running for the presidency and him in his first race for Senate. Kennedy said the two still keep in touch.
“We keep in reasonably consistent contact, particularly given the challenge that she’s got and the places that she’s got to be,” Kennedy said. “But given the challenges that she’s got in front of her, I try to make sure that she has the space she needs to be able to run her race.”
Michelle Wu, another former Warren student who now serves on the Boston City Council, said that Warren is always happy to see a former student thriving in their career.
“I think she’s always especially excited and warm seeing her former students,” said Wu, who has served as a surrogate for Warren in Iowa and New Hampshire. “At heart, she’s a teacher. She just wants all of us that she counts as her students among the generations of young people that she’s had the chance to teach — she just wants all of us to reach our full potential.”
Even for two longtime friends, it is hardly customary for Senate campaigns to send hoards of volunteers and staffers across state lines to knock on doors. Kennedy’s willingness to back Warren, experts say, may stem from both his stated desire for his former professor to win the presidency and his own political interest in Massachusetts.
Asked after the event in Nashua whether he was hoping to win over Warren’s endorsement from Markey, Kennedy was quick to swat the notion down.
“Literally never was once a consideration on my mind,” he said. “For those who have made endorsements in this race long before I got in it, I’ve not asked any single person there to reconsider it.”
Eric P. Lesser ’07, a Kennedy ally and former aide to President Barack Obama, said in an interview that Kennedy’s support for Warren is genuine.
“I think he’s supporting her because he thinks she’d be the best president, which is also the reason I’m supporting her,” Lesser said. “Both Joe and myself have been supporting Elizabeth since day one.”
Some experts, though, observe a political edge to Kennedy’s decision to campaign publicly and strongly for Warren.
“I think that both things are likely to be true — that he has a lot of affinity for Elizabeth Warren, he would like to see her win the nomination and the presidency. But I also think it helps him politically to be seen in Massachusetts as doing everything he can to assist her candidacy,” said Peter N. Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College.
How much of a factor Warren’s endorsement will bare in the Senate race remains to be seen. Outside of a minute-and-a-half endorsement video put out by the Markey campaign in which Warren made the case for his re-election, she has largely stayed out of the race.
David A. Hopkins ’99, a Boston College political science professor, said it is still unclear how far Warren will go in supporting Markey, especially as she continues to campaign for the presidency.
“While she has nominally endorsed Markey, what we don’t know is how much energy she will actually put behind supporting Markey in the campaign,” Hopkins said. “Will she campaign hard for him? Will she cut an ad for him? Will she really lead the argument against Joe Kennedy?”
“The longer her presidential candidacy goes on, the less she’s able to really mobilize personally on behalf of Markey,” he added.
In an interview, Kennedy reiterated a campaign strategy that he learned from Warren during the 2012 election. Kennedy said that in their conversations that year, “one of the things that she said repeatedly” is simply that “more is more.”
“The more people that come out, the more people that get engaged, the more people that get activated, the more people that believe in their system and believe they have something to contribute — that cascades up and down a ticket,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy added that part of the lessons learned from 2012 was the importance of engaging more voters across the Democratic ticket — a tactic he is employing today as he campaigns for both himself and Warren.
“Part of our job as candidates is to make sure that you are pulling more people in and you’re challenging them to get engaged and you’re giving them pathways to get engaged,” Kennedy said. “You’re ensuring that the motivating force behind a bigger race can actually spill over into other races and other issues that you care about.”