Atkins, a Kennedy, & the Cops

The campaign to succeed U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas in the Third Congressional District next year has gone from start to overdrive in no time. Lately, poking around in a pile of old journals at home, I found this account of a political moment in Lowell in 1992, during another hot race. I’m sure a lot of our readers have memories of Congressional contests from the past. Maybe people would be willing to share stories. My first experience was in 1972, when I was 18, volunteering for John Kerry in a wild primary election with a crowd of candidates, similar to this campaign. I’ll write about that campaign another time.—PM

Atkins, a Kennedy, & the Cops: Lowell Politics (9/11/92)

A woman I don’t know calls to inform me that Congressman Joe Kennedy will be at the JFK Civic Center in downtown Lowell at 6 p.m. to endorse his congressional colleague Chet Atkins of Concord, Mass., who is running to save his political life in the Fifth Congressional District. After considering that some local people may not like me to show my support for Chet, I decide to go and stand up for the guy since he’s been right where I’ve expected him to be on most votes in the House of Representatives and he has delivered, the code word for bringing federal money back home, delivered big-time on matters I believe are important to the place I call home. I put on clean bluejeans and a fresh shirt and drive downtown.

Arriving early, I drive by after seeing only two people on the plaza steps, but on the second pass see a few more, plus by now I’ve decided I don’t care if there are only a few of us. I recognize an artist I know and Dave the photographer from the newspaper. Once there I talk to people, and the crowd grows to about 50, a respectable number. Now here comes Chet and his wife, Cory. He’s typically low-key and wanders in from the side, chatting with folks. Joe Kennedy is spotted getting out of his car with one aide, the driver. From 30 yards away, I see the tan—the Kennedy tan, the very-important-people-tan. He looks fabulous in a dark blue suit with a white shirt and light blue tie. The son of Robert F. Kennedy, my age—my age—bigger than me, more striking facial features, the short curly gold hair. He gives us the big smile, flashing his big Kennedy teeth, and shakes hands with every person he can reach.

We move inside to a spot where there is one microphone on a stand in front of a painting of President Kennedy (this is the John F. Kennedy Civic Center, police headquarters and the city’s planning office) with several views of JFK and a plaque with text about the building. The reporters set up, and an older man introduces Joe, who talks about Chet, about America, about problems, about the need to return Chet to Congress because he can do the best job for people in the district. “He can bring home the bacon and stand up to special interests.”

Chet’s Democratic primary opponent is 36-year-old Marty Meehan of Lowell, who has been around local politics since his First Communion. Marty reveres the Kennedys, especially Bobby Kennedy. How odd is this? The crowd offers long and warm applause as Joe endorses Chet and urges us to work hard in the last days before the primary election. Chet says a few words of thanks, praises Joe, and wraps it up quickly—a fast move, no speech, just get the endorsement and the photo of Kennedy with arms around Chet and Cory.

People turn to leave, and suddenly there’s a noise, a police siren, a whistle, a commotion. Two, three cops rush past us with guns drawn, running down the stairs at the police station and across the plaza, past the bronze Italian-American memorial sculpture. Two cruisers, lights flashing, zoom down the street. Everyone stops, looking, then we move across the plaza toward the street. Joe Kennedy stands with my artist-friend to have his picture taken. Word filters through the crowd about what happened. A guy escaped from the lock-up at the police station. Guns and cops and a Kennedy. Strange. Disturbing. All over in five minutes.

The cops who had been running with guns out calmly walk back. Did they get the prisoner? I don’t know. Joe waves goodbye from a dark station wagon. Chet is saying so long to his staff members. Cory is in her car, heading to another campaign event. Three days until the primary. Marty is hitting Chet hard with radio and TV ads. Two years ago, in the general election Chet won Lowell by two votes.

–Paul Marion, 1992