Teddy's Friends Raise Millions

The Daily Beast has learned that despite a family vow against "premature eulogies," Kennedy's pals have $88 million in commitments towards a massive monument in his honor.

08.12.09 11:05 PM ET

While the watchword from Hyannis Port is “no premature eulogies” for Ted Kennedy, the ailing senator’s friends are hard at work on an imposing monument to his career, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate. Just as presidential libraries have replicas of the Oval Office, the institute’s building—to be constructed on Boston’s Columbia Point, not far from the John F. Kennedy Library—will house a full-size version of the Senate Chamber.

Despite the recession, in a year of fundraising Kennedy’s allies have secured commitments for $88 million toward a goal of $100 million, said Jack Connors, a Boston businessman in charge of securing contributions. Connors said he expected to meet that target and perhaps reach $120 million, including federal money.

Connors said, “This will be probably the easiest $100 million I have ever raised—because of him…It is really amazing to watch people’s reaction, to listen to their stories about him.”

Peter Meade, chosen last month as president of the institute, said this week that activities and programs would begin this fall, even before any construction of the building has begun.

Eventually the institute will have programs for elementary- and secondary-school students, including a “Summer Senate” with two teenagers from each state working on simulated legislation from hearings through debates and votes. College students from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, which is providing the 4-acre site for the institute, and other nearby institutions will study the history of the Senate generally and Kennedy’s career specifically, especially the importance of working across party lines. The institute also plans to offer orientation sessions for newly elected senators.

Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who is seeking $20 million in earmarks for the institute in the House, said Kennedy “is the greatest senator in American history and the embodiment of the legislative branch as it was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.” The institute, Markey said, is more than a tribute to him because it will “improve civic education and inspire millions of young Americans to public service.”

For all the enthusiasm of Connors, Meade, Markey, and others working on the project, it has drawn criticism over its fundraising. Slate's Timothy Noah contends that contributions from the health-care and drug industries raise conflicts of interest for a senator deeply involved with such issues.

Meade dismissed the accusation, saying that of course groups and companies “who have worked with [Kennedy] the closest admire him the most. And I don’t think in his almost 50 years of public service anybody has said a contribution of any kind has changed any position he has taken on anything.”

Kennedy, like a Michigan senator looking out for the auto industry or one from Texas protecting the oil business, has worked for years to help the biotech industry in Massachusetts, a major factor in the state’s economy.

Amgen Corp., a manufacturer of biologic drugs engineered from living cells that has worked closely with Kennedy for more than a decade and has a major research facility in Cambridge, has given the biggest single contribution, $5 million, to the institute. One other drug company, Novartis, was listed as a contributor when donors were made public in January.

But Amgen and other Massachusetts companies recently found Kennedy backing shorter protection than they had sought for new products.

When his Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee considered the health-care legislation last month, Kennedy filed language that would have provided an initial period of exclusivity of only nine years—though it could be extended—as opposed to the 12 years the industry sought.

Robert Coughlin, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, called the move “a major step backward for the companies who have chosen to invest in innovative statements and cures and a devastating blow to patients around the world.” Kennedy did not fight for his proposal and eventually joined the committee majority in backing 12 years.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that condemns earmarks, has attacked the $5.8 million provided earlier this year in a supplemental appropriations bill and an additional $20 million in measures proposed by Markey. Thomas A. Schatz, head of the citizens’ organization, called the earmarks especially “wasteful” at a time of high unemployment and a record federal deficit. But Markey said he had encountered no opposition from House Republicans or Democrats.

Kennedy himself is prohibited from fundraising by Senate rules. Fighting brain cancer, he has largely left the development of the institute to its board, which includes several former members of his Senate staff. A year ago, he issued a statement on the institute, saying: “The United States Senate is one of our forefathers’ most brilliant democratic inventions. To preserve our vibrant democracy for future generations, I believe it is critical to have a place where citizens can go to learn first-hand about the Senate’s important role in our system of government.”

Meade, who formally begins work later this month, worked in Boston’s City Hall under Mayor Kevin White, did stints as a radio and television talk-show host, and did public relations for Blue Cross Blue Shield. He also worked on Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign. In an interview, he recalled meeting Kennedy in 1962, as a teenager, and warning his father, a supporter that year of Democratic primary rival Eddie McCormack, “This Kennedy fellow is going to be awfully hard to beat.”

Meade spoke with particular enthusiasm about plans to work with teachers. “One of the things that we do hope to do with both grammar-school and high-school teachers is to try online to help create a curriculum that mirrors where they are in teaching American history, so that the institute and what’s happened in the history of the Senate will become an ally of teachers and an aid to students as they learn about American history,” he said.

Kennedy chose to locate the institute at UMass-Boston, a friend of the senator said, not only because it was adjacent to the JFK Library, where his papers will be archived, but because it would make a difference there.

Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts said he has been told by Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, that “it’s the most diverse campus in all of New England. It serves a first-generation population, often children of immigrants, and it has a reasonable international population. It focuses on urban issues and its research areas include disparities in health care, the Boston harbor, environmental issues and cleanup.”

“One time,” Wilson said, Kennedy told him “essentially these were the kind of people he had worked to help his entire life, the first-generation, not the most economically privileged, not people who had a long history of going to higher education.”

The university is floating a bond issue to pay for the $50 million to $60 million building, and the institute will pay it off out of income from the endowment Connors is raising. Wilson said construction should begin within 12 months and would probably take two years.

The institute plans to update its list of donors annually, and plainly next January’s list will be a lot longer. Connors said in an interview that while he had done major fundraising efforts before, he initially had no idea how he would raise the $100 million Kennedy asked him to solicit. So he divided the targets into “precincts” or segments, such as health care, life sciences, unions, trial lawyers, and the federal and state governments, and got others to help with specific areas.

But as things developed, Connors said, “This will be probably the easiest $100 million I have ever raised—because of him… It is really amazing to watch people’s reaction, to listen to their stories about him… This guy’s got 47 years worth of friendships and affection. It’s just amazing to hear the feelings they have and the respect and gratitude they feel toward the senator.”

Adam Clymer is a former chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times and author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.