Democrats' savior has arrived in the GOP empire of Brigantine

Brigantine's Kennedy clan: former Congressman Patrick, with son Owen; wife Amy; and her daughter, Harper, 4, ata fund-raiser for city council candidates.
Brigantine's Kennedy clan: former Congressman Patrick, with son Owen; wife Amy; and her daughter, Harper, 4, ata fund-raiser for city council candidates. (AMY S. ROSENBERG / Staff)
Posted: October 08, 2012

BRIGANTINE, N.J. - Maybe in their wildest dream, a fantasy fueled by 114 years of losing elections to Republicans, the Democrats of Brigantine - yes, there are some! - imagined a savior.

Someone who would appear on their narrow barrier island in the shadow of Atlantic City, the place the kids call Narnia - one way in, one way out - and the pols call the sanctum sanctorum, the sacred center of the Atlantic County Republican Empire, the last vestige of the backslapping/stabbing reign of a guy named Nucky Johnson.

Well, hey, if it isn't Patrick Kennedy, coming over for Democratic hors d'oeuvres on tony Bayshore Drive!

Yes! A Kennedy! Their Kennedy!

The former U.S. representative (D., Rhode Island), son of Ted, advocate of mental-health issues, veteran of rehab and addiction issues, wed to a South Jersey schoolteacher, and building a house in Brigantine. He's showing off his Jersey-born and Brigantine-baptized son, latest arrival in the Kennedy dynasty, to a stunned, formerly obscure partisan crowd as, improbably, "Owen, Brigantine's newest Democrat."

Happy days are here again?

Not the first guy to rebuild a life in Brigantine, Kennedy, 45, is digging in to become a local.

"I'm amazed," said Frank Kern, dermatologist, Democratic city councilman, and host of the recent fund-raiser at his bay-front home, just a few houses from the one Kennedy is building on a lot (with teardown) he bought for $1.1 million.

"I'm a little jealous of Patrick," he added. "He now has the most beautiful home on the island."

Yes, it's true. The savior has arrived, and he instructed his wife to write a $200 check to the cause: The four Democratic city council candidates, who, due to a split in the Republican Party, think they have some traction.

"If Dr. Kern keeps putting me in the sun like this, I'll be his next client," the freckled Kennedy is joking, clad in worn loafers and, like 6-month-old Owen, khakis and a blue shirt.

Kennedy is also talking about the 1964 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Atlantic City. ("They thought my Uncle Bobby would storm the convention," he said. "LBJ, literally, that was his fear.") Uncle Bobby!

Kennedy is already a fixture in Brigantine, where he jogs along Bayshore Drive daily (a practice, he has said, that has replaced the medication he was taking for his depression and bipolar conditions). The family is renting until the house is done.

Smitten

The former Amy Pettigout, who managed this Camelot landing, is Amy Kennedy now (and, yes, she has met Taylor Swift, another budding Kennedy woman. Only comment: "She's sweet.")

Amy Kennedy, a Northfield history teacher with a 4-year-old daughter, Harper, seems to have comfortably transitioned from divorced Jersey working mom to newest Kennedy woman: pretty, smart, elegant, and just a bit wary.

She met the longtime bachelor at a dinner for the Arc of Atlantic County, an organization that supports people with intellectual disabilities, where Kennedy was the guest speaker (and where nearly everyone in Atlantic County now claims to have been that night).

He was smitten immediately and pursued her, to the point of living in her parents' home in Absecon. They dated at the Knife & Fork, married in July 2011, and chose Brigantine, where her daughter is now in school.

Spreading buzz

Thus, the savior has landed. And Kennedy, who has battled his own demons of addiction and mental illness - infamously crashing his car into a concrete barrier near the U.S. Capitol building while still a congressman - and who now runs a nonprofit advocating for mental-health issues and parity in health care, seems happily on his way to a new life of Camelot in Narnia. Or is it Hyannisport on the Inlet?

"Wind," Kennedy says, explaining Brigantine's appeal. "This is, like, one of the windiest places on the coast. If you're a sailor, you like wind."

For now, he's keeping his sailboat, Making Waves, on I Dock at the Farley State Marina. When the house is finished, he said, the extended family will be down.

New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney, who also showed up in Brigantine, hopes this is about more than wind. A Democrat, he's salivating over the possibility that Kennedy might return to politics and run for, well, anything.

"Having Patrick Kennedy here in the state of New Jersey is very good for Democrats," he said. "Sure, there's a scramble - he's a former congressman with a million-dollar brand."

The buzz has spread up to Gov. Christie, according to Kennedy. He says his cousin Timmy Shriver met with Christie about the Special Olympics (New Jersey is hosting in 2014, and Kennedy already is planning a casino gala). "He told Timmy, 'What did I hear about your cousin running against me?' "

For now, Kennedy, who will vote one last time in Rhode Island this fall, says the politics he's interested in deal with health care for mental illnesses and addiction. His One Mind for Research nonprofit seeks more funds for the study of brain disorders. He speaks about the mental-health toll on returning American service people, and about the need for parity in mental-health treatment.

Meanwhile, Brigantine's Republicans are taking it all in stride. Joe Campitelli, president of the city's GOP club and a council candidate, said Kennedy's moving to town validates the ruling party, observing, "It must have been a great rule because Patrick Kennedy bought a house here."

Campitelli, who is coordinator of Atlantic County's substance-abuse services, said he hoped Kennedy would join him at an event. "Him being here is kind of an honor," he said. "We welcome any citizen to come in and be involved."

Getting involved

And that's just how Kennedy himself explained it, to the crowd gathered on Kern's deck at the fund-raiser: His family obviously values politics, but more than that, he said, they believe in getting involved with their communities, with their neighbors, with local causes.

"All politics is personal," he said in a speech that mentioned both Jesus and Democratic consultant David Axelrod. "I understand here in Brigantine it's especially personal."

After lingering nearly to the end, he was off to visit his unfinished house, and to be buttonholed immediately by a Republican across the street.

The next night, he spoke to the Brigantine Lions Club, a GOP bastion that added a line to promotional materials ensuring the event would be sold out. (It was.)

"THIS IS A NON-POLITICAL SPEECH!"


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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