The First-Year Senator

Conservative Kennedy Swings for the Fences in New Role on Capitol Hill
Sen. John N. Kennedy

"I believe that government tries to do too much, and as a result it does too much of it badly," Sen. John N. Kennedy said.

May 28, 2017

In the UVA Law professor’s hypothetical baseball game, a batter hits a ground ball sharply up the middle. The second baseman fields it and flips to first, but his throw goes high and wide, hitting a fan in the stands and causing severe injury. Has the second baseman committed a tort?

“Mr. Kennedy?”

“Well, I didn’t know anything,” recalled John N. Kennedy ’77, the newly elected U.S. senator from Louisiana, sitting in his temporary quarters in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building one morning in late January. “I was a first-year law student. I had done the reading, but that wasn’t in it. So I said, ‘No.’” “Why?” the professor asked, taking the next step in the Socratic dance.

“I couldn’t think of anything. So I said, ‘Well it’s bad enough that he got charged with an error on the play.’” Satisfied, and no doubt amused, the instructor moved on, to Kennedy’s relief.

Being a freshman senator has similarities with being a first-year law student. There are a lot of new faces to learn, new rules to adjust to (here is an example Kennedy offers: The only two beverages allowed on the Senate floor during a filibuster are water and milk), and a lot of dry reading.

Kennedy at a hearing
Kennedy listens during Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearings.

Because Kennedy was not elected until he prevailed in a runoff in early December, he ranked — temporarily at least — dead last in seniority, which meant last dibs on office space and a high likelihood of being tapped for drudge work such as presiding over the Senate at odd hours. Kennedy was in the chair on the night of the college football national championship game; forbidden by Senate rules from having his cell phone out, he relied on periodic updates from the cloakroom to learn the score. He has since gotten his feet wet, introducing a few bills and co-sponsoring others, and making friends in both parties.

Kennedy came to UVA from Vanderbilt, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was president of his senior class. At Virginia, he was elected to the Order of the Coif and served as an executive editor of the Virginia Law Review with now-Professor Paul Stephan ’77, who describes Kennedy as “unambiguously one of the top students in our class.” Following graduation, he earned a bachelor of civil law degree with first honors from Magdalen College, Oxford, before entering private practice. He also taught for 15 years as an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University Law School and has been a volunteer substitute in local public schools.

Like several current congressional Republicans from the South, Kennedy began his political career as a Democrat. Then-Gov. Buddy Roemer appointed him special counsel in 1988 and later secretary of his cabinet. He was appointed secretary of the state revenue department in 1996 and elected state treasurer in 1999, winning re-election four times. Along the way, he clashed several times with Republican governors, always calling for smaller government and a tighter rein on spending.

Kennedy, who lives in Madisonville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, ran twice unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate before winning last year; after finishing first in the state’s open primary, he prevailed easily in the runoff under the slogan, “Conservative for U.S. Senate.” He summarizes his political philosophy as follows: “I believe that government tries to do too much, and as a result it does too much of it badly. I’m a populist in the sense that what so many Americans are angry about is that we have too many undeserving folks at the top getting bailouts and too many undeserving folks at the bottom getting handouts, and the rest of us in the middle get the bill.”

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