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Kennedy 'really understood' California politically

The youngest brother campaigned for John and Robert and immersed himself in farmworkers' and other issues in the state.

August 27, 2009|Michael Finnegan

Edward M. Kennedy was in San Francisco celebrating his brother Robert's victory in California's 1968 Democratic presidential primary when a gunman assassinated the candidate at his election-night party in Los Angeles.

Twelve years later, the Massachusetts senator vanquished President Carter in another California primary -- yet effectively lost his own bid for the party's White House nomination that same night.

In decades of campaigns, Kennedy marched with farmworkers and other Californians in battles for civil rights and labor advances. All the while, the senator who died Tuesday also cultivated California's rich and famous, raising campaign money in the state for himself, his allies and liberal causes.

"He got California," said Bill Carrick, a top Kennedy political aide in the 1980s. "He really understood it politically, and had a good handle on the state."

Over the decades, Kennedy, who often stayed with friends in Bel-Air, built a wide network of loyal political friends in California -- some well known, many not.

"Once you worked for a Kennedy or knew them, they never let you go," said Hope Warschaw of Santa Monica, a Kennedy delegate in 1980. "You were there forever. They had your name and telephone number ingrained in their head."

Kennedy's 1980 campaign in California was notable for a quiet political breakthrough: A Hollywood Hills reception marked the first time a major White House contender had spoken openly to a gay group.

"He's as important a friend as any friend we've ever had in public life," said Steve Smith, a former Democratic National Committee member from West Hollywood.

Kennedy's roots in California politics date to the 1960 race for the White House. His older brother, John F. Kennedy, assigned him to lead his campaign's push for Western states, many of them solidly Republican at the time.

"Ted didn't know a lot of people at all," recalled Roz Wyman, a leader of Kennedy's California campaign in 1960. But at rallies up and down the state, Edward Kennedy, then 28, drew huge crowds. He riled them up from the back of a flatbed truck. "Nobody worked harder than Teddy did in that campaign," Wyman said.

Kennedy returned to California eight years later to work for Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.

In the years that followed, Edward Kennedy built close ties with Cesar Chavez and other leaders of California's farmworker rights movement.

He dispatched his doctor to Chavez's home in Delano to help the bedridden labor leader recover from a fast in protest of working conditions in the fields. Later, Kennedy joined a farmworkers' march from Coachella to the Mexican border in support of the grape boycott led by Chavez. Art Torres, a former state Democratic chairman, credits Kennedy for getting support of a lettuce boycott into the party platform in 1972.

In Washington, Kennedy often welcomed farm labor leaders who came to make their case on Capitol Hill. "He was always very accessible," said Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers.

His political heft had limits, however. Kennedy tried mightily in 2008 to move California Latinos toward Barack Obama, whom he endorsed shortly before the state's February presidential primary. But they voted resoundingly for Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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"He was kind of like an anchor. . . . I don't think we shall ever see his like again."

Vice President Joe Biden

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