PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Conservative talk radio shows in Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s home state buzzed with outrage and calls for him to resign after he announced he was entering rehab for prescription drug addiction.
But Kennedy’s district is heavily Democratic and has sent him to Washington for six straight terms despite other personal problems. On Saturday, a day after Kennedy’s announcement, his powerful political friends closed ranks and roundly praised him for taking a very public step to get help, while people at home ranged from sympathetic to fed up.
“He should go,” said Jozef Patyna, 59, whose Providence shop, Flowers in Fashion, is in the district Kennedy once represented for three terms in the state legislature. It’s also a block from the gates of Providence College, the Roman Catholic school Kennedy graduated from in 1991.
“He didn’t do anything good for the people. What he’s making is a bad name for Rhode Islanders,” Patyna said.
Just down the street, Doug Nilson, 29, a resident emergency room physician at Rhode Island Hospital, said he felt for Kennedy and those like him who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“I support someone who seeks help for those kinds of problems, because it’s a real illness,” he said. Still, Nilson, who moved to Providence from Chicago not long ago, he said he’d probably be less likely to vote for Kennedy when he’s up for re-election in the fall.
Rose Iovini, 78, of Providence, said her support for Kennedy was unwavering.
“I think he’s a sick boy, and he’s doing the right thing. And politics shouldn’t come into it,” she said. “I think he’ll be excellent when he comes back.”
Iovini recalled fondly that Kennedy attended a spaghetti dinner at her housing complex before the last election. That kind of personal connection is crucial to succeed in politics in Rhode Island, a tiny state with just one other representative in the House.
Kennedy is known for being able to connect with his constituents one-on-one, said Jack McConnell, a prominent lawyer, longtime Kennedy friend and former campaign manager.
Kennedy has publicly battled personal problems before. He earlier disclosed he went to rehab as a teenager for an addiction to cocaine, and has since said he was in recovery for depression and alcoholism. In 2000, he was accused of shoving an airport security guard in Los Angeles and trashing a yacht. Still, he was re-elected.
Patricia Morgan, head of the state Republican Party, said shortly after Kennedy’s announcement Friday afternoon that Kennedy wasn’t capable of fulfilling his duties. She called for him to resign or “take a medical leave of absence.”
McConnell said such calls were insensitive, insulting and wrong. “If Congressman Kennedy had had a heart attack, nobody at all would be calling for him to step aside. That’s the problem for people who have mental health issues,” he said. “Patrick has spent his whole life fighting that stigma.”
Bill Lynch, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he did not think Kennedy’s disclosure that he was addicted to prescription drugs, and had sought help for it during the Christmas holiday, would affect Kennedy’s chances for re-election.
Lynch said he expected Kennedy would be unanimously endorsed for re-election when the state Democratic convention is held Monday evening. No official candidates are running for Kennedy’s seat.
“People have gotten to know him here personally in Rhode Island,” Lynch said. “People here respect the fact that he’s courageous enough to deal with this in the public eye, which is very difficult.”