Kennedy’s power lives on through former staff members
By Matt Viser | Globe Staff November 16, 2014
Drew Angerer for The Boston Globe
Tracy Spicer pointed out mementos from her time working for Senator Edward Kennedy in her Washington office. Spicer now works at Avenue Solutions, a lobbying firm where she is a founding partner.
WASHINGTON — William J. Lynn III is the embodiment of a Washington power broker, with a hand in hundreds of billions of dollars in defense spending throughout a decades-long career.
He has been a Senate staffer who recommended how Pentagon money was spent. He’s been the chief lobbyist for Waltham-based Raytheon, helping to secure many contracts, including a Navy destroyer the Pentagon didn’t want. The Pentagon didn’t hold it against him: Two years later, he oversaw the military budget as deputy defense secretary.
As he sat on a recent day inside an office with a sweeping view of the nation’s capital, one clue revealed a key to his extraordinary career: an inscribed photo of him with his mentor, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, at the Hyannis Port compound, commemorating their friendship.
Similar portraits and paintings from Kennedy decorate offices throughout Washington, from President Obama’s private dining room to the lobbyist corridor on K Street, potent symbols of the ongoing influence of the longtime senior senator from Massachusetts who died five years ago.
A Boston Globe review of thousands of lobbying records and interviews with two dozen former aides reveals an informal network that is almost unrivaled in the nation’s capital, both in size and quiet clout. Some among them, who have gathered regularly over a good meal to kibitz, recall, and strategize, call themselves the T-birds — T for Teddy.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy had more than 1,100 aides during his 47 years in the US Senate. Many of them have become important power brokers who have remained, risen, and currently occupy positions of great influence, five years after their former boss died.
A look at former Kennedy staffers
It is a remarkable flock. Kennedy molded some 1,100 staffers over the course of nearly five decades, a list that includes Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, superlawyers such as Kenneth R. Feinberg and Gregory B. Craig, and US Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.
More staffers who worked for Kennedy went on to become lobbyists and other influencers than the staffers of anyone aside from Hillary Clinton, according to a list compiled and maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The stories of many of them are little known but, taken together, provide a revealing portrait of Kennedy power that continues to reach deep into Washington and Massachusetts. It is a corps of well-placed Washington players who say they still hear the echo of the late senator’s booming baritone in their ears and are still moved by his priorities, even as they have followed the well-worn track of many former Congressional staffers, parlaying inside connections into lucrative lobbying careers.
Many of the former Kennedy aides are highly influential, working for firms that pull in millions of dollars annually in lobbying and other fees. A Kennedy deputy chief of staff now lobbies on behalf of some of the country’s biggest health insurance companies. Others continue to pull down a government salary but have out-sized influence. The 22-year-old who used to answer the phones at the front desk in Kennedy’s office is now President Obama’s head speechwriter.
“It is this kind of gold standard for lobbying,” said Scott M. Ferson, a Kennedy press secretary in the 1990s who founded Liberty Square Group, a Boston-based lobbying and communications firm flush with former Kennedy aides.
“A lot of business development is done amongst the network,” he said.
Bringing funding to Massachusetts
Massachusetts was once a powerhouse on Capitol Hill. Tip O’Neill became the second-longest-serving House speaker in history. South Boston’s Joe Moakley led the delegation and ensured that committee posts were doled out for maximum influence in all sectors of government.
Those positions of power mattered.
Defense spending in Massachusetts nearly tripled, from $5.7 billion in 1996 to $16.6 billion in 2009, a rate that was higher than the national average. Grants awarded to Massachusetts by the National Institute of Health went from $818 million in 1992 to $2.5 billion in 2010, then down to $2.3 billion in 2014.
O’Neill was so successful securing the billions in federal funding required for the Big Dig that a major piece of the project was named after him. Kennedy, who played an instrumental role, got a greenway, named after his mother, where the rusty elevated roadway used to be.
It’s hard to imagine such things now. The Massachusetts congressional delegation has approached a low-water mark in its power and seniority in Washington.
When the new Congress starts in January, the state will have lost nearly 200 years in seniority since Kennedy died in 2009. The delegation will have a combined 93 years in office, the lowest level since at least 1963, when Kennedy began his first term in the US Senate. It’s a striking turnabout.
Getting things done for regional interests now increasingly requires tapping a different sort of power grid, one that relies on deft and well-situated insiders who know how the city works — and how to combine forces in a common cause. They are lessons many in the Kennedy legion took in and took to heart from the man himself.
Finding the middle ground in health care
It was 1994 when a recent college graduate named Tracy Spicer was among those who helped save Kennedy’s career. She moved to Massachusetts, where Kennedy faced a strong challenge from Republican Mitt Romney, and became a trusted aide who remained on his staff for a decade.
By 2005, Spicer had left Kennedy’s office and soon would become a symbol of how former staffers can become some of this city’s most influential lobbyists.
She opened a company called Avenue Solutions, an all-female, all-Democratic lobbying shop. In 2009, just as Congress took up Kennedy’s dream of a health care bill, her three-person lobbying shop was paid a total of $1 million by AETNA, Blue Cross Blue Shield, UnitedHealth Group, and the Health Care Leadership Council.
It might have seemed that she was going against the Kennedy grain, pulling in big money from health care companies who were initially skeptical of the Affordable Care Act. But that’s not the way she saw it. What she saw whenever she conducted a strategy meeting or conference call in her office was literally this: the large painting that Kennedy had given her of his sailboat, Maya.
It was a reminder: Stay the course.
“It was very clear to all my clients that I was all in,” Spicer said. “At the end of the day, I cared deeply about passing the Affordable Care Act. Not at the expense of my clients . . . but I tried to get my clients to a place where it could work.”
Drew Angerer for The Boston Globe
A newspaper advertisement with a personalized message from Ted Kennedy hangs in Tracy Spicer’s office.
Her Kennedy connections, and experience, proved a benefit to her clients: She could credibly allay some industry concerns about the big new bureaucracy that the law would create, pointing to the influx of new insurance enrollees who would come their way. And she would continue to prove useful in the years ahead.
Earlier this year, her clients faced a new crisis when the Obama administration proposed cuts to Medicaid Advantage reimbursement rates that stood to cost the insurance industry billions of dollars.
Spicer had six weeks to try to offset the cuts.
She placed a flurry of calls to her contacts on Capitol Hill. She spoke with congressional aides, and set up meetings with senators and representatives, stressing how many seniors in their home states rely on Medicare Advantage. The goal was to get members of Congress to put pressure on the Obama administration.
RELATED: Where some of Kennedy’s former staffers are now
It worked. She helped get nearly half of Congress — 40 senators and 203 representatives — to sign letters supporting her side. In the end, the Obama administration’s proposed 6 percent cut was reduced by about half.
It had the hallmarks, she said, of the way Kennedy had waged his own battles, finding middle ground where at first there seemed none, turning rivals into allies.
“In the office, we used to call them mini-campaigns,” she said. “We’re certainly not as big and legendary as the man himself. But each of us took away lessons learned.”
Earmarks and lobbying
If Spicer’s career had a linear path — from Kennedy to the K Street lobbying corridor — Bill Lynn’s took him through the revolving door, time and again. In and out of government, in and out of consulting.
It all started when he arrived in Kennedy’s office as a 33-year-old graduate of Dartmouth College, Cornell Law School, and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.
It was 1987, and Democrats had just won the Senate majority. Kennedy took over an Armed Services subcommittee that had oversight of shipbuilding.
Even though Kennedy opposed most wars, he was one of the Senate’s biggest cheerleaders for the defense industry — especially if the spending was going to take place in Massachusetts. He helped stave off base closures, and he fought for big contracts that defense companies wanted, even if the Pentagon itself advised against it. Working by Kennedy’s side for six years, Lynn saw, time and again, how the senator built on and deployed his influence.
“I think Ted Kennedy may well have invented the earmark,” Greg Craig, the Kennedy aide who offered Lynn a job with the senator, said of a budgetary tool used to secure federal money for home-state projects. “So we were alert to the various interests Massachusetts had in the defense budget. We certainly were aware of Raytheon and GE engines.”
RELATED: A look at the Kennedy network
Lynn left Kennedy’s office in 1993 to work in the Defense Department, where he eventually became comptroller and had oversight of a budget bigger than the GDP of some countries.
By 2002, he had accumulated a perfect resume for a defense industry giant like Raytheon, where he would become the chief lobbyist during a period when military spending increased as the Iraq War escalated.
Then, in July 2008, Lynn and Kennedy confronted a shared crisis.
The Navy alerted Congress that it was going to scrap a $20 billion DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer program — which involved huge contracts for Raytheon — once two ships already paid for were completed.
Kennedy, the champion of regional interests, led a counteroffensive, organizing other senators and threatening to cut off funds for shipbuilding projects the Pentagon badly wanted. Raytheon executives began publicly touting the program’s importance, with Lynn playing a crucial role, personally lobbying members of Congress and their aides.
Within about a month, the Pentagon reversed course and stuck to its original plan of purchasing another ship in 2009. That year, the project was the largest of Raytheon’s 15,000 contracts, according to the company’s annual report. Some called funding the Zumwalt a boondoggle, a waste of taxpayer funds, but for Raytheon, Lynn, and Kennedy, it was a sweet victory.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Raytheon has benefited from its close relationship with Senator Kennedy and the ability to tap his former defense staffers,” said Loren B. Thompson, a defense industry consultant at the Lexington Institute who advises some of Raytheon’s competitors.
In early January 2009, Lynn went through the revolving door once again. Obama announced Lynn’s nomination as deputy Secretary of Defense. But there was a problem: Obama had pledged not to hire anyone who had lobbied within the previous two years. Lynn would need a waiver.
The Kennedy connection helped smooth the way. Craig, who was Lynn’s former boss in Kennedy’s office, was now the White House counsel, in charge of vetting candidates and helping decide whether a waiver “is necessary and appropriate.”
Craig said he personally did not grant the waiver — “It was the president’s decision. It was not something I had to sign off on” — but he did co-sign a lengthy letter defending the waiver to Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.
After two and a half years overseeing day-to-day operations at the Pentagon and controlling major budgetary decisions, Lynn retired from his job in the Obama administration.
Once again, he swung back through the revolving door and is now chief executive of DRS Technologies, a large defense contractor.
Throughout it all, the Kennedy network has been an ever-present factor.
“I’ve often been in a room at the White House where I’ve looked around the table and there’s three or four others who at different times worked for Kennedy,” Lynn added. “ . . . He was such a force in the Senate, that will I think continue for a while. At some point, it will become history, I guess. But that’s not soon, I don’t think.”
Channeling Kennedy’s words
He is the ultimate inside player, ensconced within the White House and, as President Obama’s chief speechwriter, putting words Kennedy might have said in the addresses delivered by a very different politician and orator.
Cody Keenan, unlike many other former Kennedy aides, doesn’t lobby. He did not join a lucrative business. Instead, he represents the steady path to power and influence that takes years to accomplish and pays off in more subtle, yet important, ways.
His rise was swift — and, in some ways, unlikely.
He path to power began when he was a 22-year-old college graduate sleeping on a friend’s couch at a Washington apartment. Late one Friday afternoon, he cold-called Kennedy’s Senate office and asked for chief of staff Mary Beth Cahill. He thought he knew how the system worked because he’d watched every episode of “The West Wing.”
Soon enough, he found himself in the actual West Wing.
RELATED: A look at the Kennedy network
One recent day, he sat at his computer keyboard and turned his chair to the left and faced his “Kennedy Wall,” where a painting of the Maya hangs prominently. Occasionally, when frustrated, he’s been known to hit “reply all” to the news clippings that are e-mailed to 200 White House aides with a link to a speech that a red-faced Kennedy gave on the Senate floor in 2007 ridiculing his colleagues for not raising the minimum wage and shouting, “When does the greed stop?!?”
Keenan sometimes tries to inject that passion into Obama’s speeches.
“The president is a very logical guy, and he thinks he can make an argument for anything,” he said. “What Ted Kennedy had that the president probably doesn’t use all that often is, like, there are moral absolutes. There are rights and wrongs. And it is wrong that people [who] work full time work in poverty. Or it’s wrong people couldn’t get health care or got discriminated against because they had a preexisting condition.
“The president believes all those things,” he added. “Sometimes I’ll write them with a little more gusto, channeling the senator like that.”
Kennedy has been mentioned in at least 51 of Obama’s speeches, some of them focused on Kennedy’s “unfinished business” — immigration reform and a minimum wage increase.
“That’s what pushes me on,” Keenan said. “I will not leave this job until the end. Because he would be disappointed.”
Keeping the network thriving
For decades, Kennedy served as the most visible and powerful conduit between Boston and Washington, a constant presence on shuttle flights, often accompanied by his Portuguese water dogs.
Now a shadow contingent of former aides travels the pathway their boss once took. Few among the Kennedy alumni have traveled this nexus of power between two capitals more often and more successfully than Scott Ferson as he focuses on securing an array of benefits for Massachusetts — and his clients.
That was precisely what the Westborough-based Center for Technology Commercialization was looking for when it hired Ferson’s company, the Liberty Square Group, a communications, political strategy, and lobbying firm.
The group wanted help to win federal funding to build a center that would provide training and technology for first responders.
Ferson started as a press secretary for Kennedy in 1990, and when he was hired he felt like he’d made it into a secret club, he said. He left in 1995, but his work afterward has helped keep the Kennedy network thriving.
It was a move that proved good for his business. Since 2005, Liberty Square has made at least $5.3 million from federal lobbying and $1.6 million from lobbying in Massachusetts, according to its filings.
The firm has represented a wide array of interests, from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council on health-care-related issues to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in its quest for a casino gambling license.
In the past, Ferson’s method was to place a phone call to Kennedy’s office and lobby for funds sought by the center’s clients.
Kennedy would put requests in, and they would often be approved by Congress. Over several years, Ferson and his firm helped secure at least $7 million in earmarks for the center based in Westborough.
“He was very generous to me in my business,” Ferson said. “He wanted you to succeed.”
The cozy relationship ended, however, with both Kennedy’s death in 2009 and the congressional decision to end earmarks in 2010. In April 2011, the center stopped using lobbyists altogether.
The Kennedy network had to rewire. The influence that many derived directly from Kennedy was gone.
Firms such as Liberty Square Group started shifting strategies, lobbying based less on access to members of Congress than on building coalitions to apply political pressure. Instead of emphasizing connections to Kennedy, they began emphasizing their ability to do things Kennedy-style.
“Back in the day, it was a lot easier to go in the front door,” Ferson said. “Now it’s putting coalitions together.”
Helping out their own
It is a recent Friday at a tony Washington restaurant called Nopa Kitchen+Bar, and nearly a dozen former Kennedy aides sit around a large table in a private dining room.
They reminisce about their old boss, how he worked them hard, rewarded them handsomely, and liked a good party — such as the time he kept singing “Mustang Sally” until the band he’d hired asked for its microphone back.
These lunches began a few months ago when Scott Fay, a lobbyist and former Kennedy aide, met with Melody Barnes, who was Obama’s former domestic policy adviser. It is their own way of keeping alive the network that exists without Kennedy, a living version of his black book of contacts.
Kennedy always tried to set up his former aides for success, and he provided legendary job recommendations.
Shortly after Kennedy’s death, his staff was told that Vice President Joe Biden wanted to meet with them individually to offer them jobs, or help them find one.
“It was very Kennedy,” said Janice Kaguyutan, the chief counsel for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “He wanted to take care of us.”
Drew Angerer for The Boston Globe
Scott Fay talked with Janice Kaguyutan during a lunch with former staffers of Senator Ted Kennedy, at Nopa Restaurant in Washington, on Sept. 26.
Preserving a Senate legacy
On a spit of land on Dorchester’s Columbia Point, next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is rising. There is nothing like it in the country: a monument to the power and influence of a single US senator — and, by extension, the army of aides he enrolled. The 68,000-square-foot building will include a reproduction of Kennedy’s office and a full-scale replica of the United States Senate chamber.
At first, the effort to build the institute provided an unintended lesson in the state’s ebbing political power. Kennedy died in August 2009 from a brain tumor and, by March 2010, the institute needed tens of millions of dollars to begin construction.
The solution, of course, was to turn to Kennedy’s former staff. The Institute hired Ferson’s Liberty Square Group.
Working on a contract that paid at least $95,000 over two years, the firm worked with then-Senator John F. Kerry and then-Representative Edward J. Markey to try to convince Congress to approve funding for the institute in two appropriations bills, according to lobbying records. They sought up to $20 million in additional federal funding, on top of at least $32 million in earmarks that had been secured before Kennedy’s death.
With earmarks abolished, it never went through.
Instead, theInstitute appealed to those Kennedy had helped over the years. Millions of dollars poured in from old friends, health care and financial corporations, and labor unions. Amgen, the biotechnology giant, donated $5 million. The Service Employees International Union gave $775,000. Raytheon donated $1 million.
The old Kennedy aides, with help from Vicki Kennedy, helped raise more than $80 million, enabling the institute to announce that it plans to open to the public March 31.
“They were the greatest staff in the world and continue to be,” Vicki Kennedy said.
The building will be a testament to Kennedy’s influence, of course, but it will also be a physical reminder of the network of disciples he built.
“There’s a classic Kennedy line, ‘Off the payroll, never off the staff,’ ” said Ranny Cooper, a former chief of staff who now leads the public affairs practice at Weber Shandwick. “Even when you physically left the office, you were still a part of the team.”