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Brown: Flirting over, Chris Kennedy must now win voters’ hearts

Chris Kennedy | AP File photo

Christopher Kennedy brought his famous family political name to Chicago some 30 years ago, and for most of that time, Illinois Democrats have been waiting for him to run for public office.

On Wednesday, Kennedy finally took the leap, announcing his candidacy for governor with a video in which he promises to “restore the American dream to the people of Illinois in a single generation.”

I’m not sure the people of Illinois will be that patient, although that could be the most honest assessment yet of how deeply we’ve dug the hole for ourselves.

Kennedy has flirted with campaigns so often in the past that some stopped taking him seriously, but he has never gone this far.


And indeed, there is every indication behind the scenes, where he has been making the rounds of Democratic groups and assembling a campaign team, that he is committed to the contest.

Then again, you’ll recall that the other great Hamlet of Illinois Democratic politics—former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley—announced his campaign for governor in June of 2013 and had pulled out by September.

Until candidates actually file their nominating petitions and take a few punches on the campaign trail, you never know whether they will run the distance.

Kennedy’s early entry may give pause to some of the other candidates looking at entering the Democratic primary, but it seems unlikely to deter billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker, who is more than capable of matching Kennedy’s ability to self-fund a campaign.

The largest political donation Kennedy ever made in Illinois was $10,000 to Pat Quinn in 2014, which raises questions about how much he’s even willing to spend.

Video campaign announcements have become commonplace for many candidates in recent years. It allows them to more carefully control their message.

But Kennedy’s decision to take that approach will receive extra scrutiny because of his previously expressed distaste for facing groups of reporters.

Kennedy baffled the news media at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer when he gave a well-received speech slamming Gov. Bruce Rauner’s leadership, then fled afterward when reporters tried to question him about his remarks and whether he planned to run.

It resulted in a bizarre scene with him trapped in an elevator that I’m sure you’ll be seeing replayed.

Kennedy, who was four years old when his father Robert F. Kennedy was slain while campaigning for president, explained to me after the Philadelphia incident that he refuses to participate in the media scrums that are a staple of political campaigns, preferring one-on-one interviews instead.

I can’t blame him for disliking those impromptu question-and-answer sessions, known in the business as “gang bangs.” So do I.

But it speaks to the fact that he is different kind of cat than we usually see in politics, the complexities of which have yet to be explored.

He joked to our Tina Sfondeles on Wednesday that, “Clearly my elevator speech needs a little bit of work,” a display of self-awareness that previously had been missing.

The truth is that despite all these years of Kennedy’s name being floated for this office and that, even residents of Chicago don’t have much of a handle on who Chris Kennedy really is.

Kennedy has proven himself in many arenas since coming to Chicago to oversee the family’s business interests at the Merchandise Mart—as a businessman, as a concerned member of the community through his efforts to feed the hungry, and as the chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

He still has a lot of work ahead of him, though, to prove himself to voters as someone who should become the next governor of Illinois.