BOSTON -- Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II announced yesterday that he would not run for governor of Massachusetts, ending a campaign that had been engulfed by controversy over his family even before it was officially launched.
Kennedy, who less than a year ago had been considered the Democrats' front- runner for governor, said at a news conference that he had concluded that the race would focus not on issues such as education, jobs and health care, but on "personal and family pressures." It would not be fair to his family, or to the voters, to pursue his campaign, he said.
Though he did not elaborate about the personal and family pressures, he had been dogged since April by allegations from his former wife, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, that he tried to bully her into cooperating with his effort to get an annulment from the Roman Catholic Church, and by news reports that his brother Michael had had an affair with his family's teen-age baby sitter.
In a state where since 1948 no Kennedy has ever lost an election, it was a remarkable setback for a Kennedy to eschew a race that even after six months of unrelenting bad press many people thought was his to lose.
Joe Kennedy is the inheritor of the state's most famous political name, the oldest male member of his generation of a family that has produced one president, three presidential candidates and two U.S. senators, one of whom has served for more than a third of a century.
Kennedy, who seemed upbeat and even relieved at the news conference, said he intended to seek re-election next year to Congress, a race in which he is not expected to face serious opposition.
"I'm not trying to suggest that I feel wronged," he said in response to questions from reporters who asked whether he faulted the news media's coverage of his family. "I don't. I accept the realities of what I'm up against."
Kennedy's announcement was the latest astonishment in a wild six months in Massachusetts politics. It began in April, when the Boston Globe published reports of Michael Kennedy's alleged affair, quoting unnamed sources.
Around the same time, Sheila Rauch Kennedy began promoting her book, "Shattered Faith," a critique of Catholic annulment practices, and talking about what she called verbal mistreatment by her former husband. She was the one who filed for divorce.
Kennedy and the Democrats then got some good news when the White House announced that it wanted to nominate Massachusetts Gov. William Weld for the ambassadorship to Mexico. And the popular Republican governor, who had talked about running for a third term and was favored to beat Kennedy, said he wanted the job.
But then Sen. Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he intended to block Weld's nomination by not holding a committee hearing on it. Weld stepped down as governor in July, declaring that he wanted to work full time to fight for the ambassadorship.
Thomas F. Birmingham, president of the Massachusetts Senate, summed up the political tumult yesterday: "It's like a kaleidoscope. One twist of the wrist changes the entire picture."
Birmingham, a Democrat, said Kennedy's announcement makes his own life less complicated. He had been considering a run for Kennedy's congressional seat -- but only if Kennedy was not running for it.
Birmingham praised Kennedy's decision. "I think he made a responsible judgment, which I completely respect," he said. "I take him entirely at his word for the reasons."
Birmingham's comments were echoed by other politicians and political observers.
"He preserves his status as a congressman, and he can live to fight another day," said Jack Corrigan, a lawyer and former Democratic operative who is a candidate in the 1998 Norfolk County district attorney's race.
Corrigan added: "It must feel very unfair to want to run for governor and have allegations about your brother and your first marriage effectively prevent you from communicating anything about yourself or the issues."
It was front-page news here two weeks ago when Kennedy's cousin, John F. Kennedy Jr., wrote in the latest issue of his magazine, George, that Michael and Joseph Kennedy were "poster boys for bad behavior."
Asked at yesterday's news conference which of the disclosures about his family had hurt him the most, Kennedy brushed off the question with a laugh. "I don't know, there were so many, it's difficult to identify one," he said.
"People are very angry at members of my family, me in particular," he said. "I accept responsibility for that."
There were indications that women, in particular, were angry at Joseph and Michael Kennedy.
In response to a question about the George column, he said it had been "very much misunderstood," and that his cousin "indicated to me he felt very badly about it."
The Norfolk County district attorney announced in July that he would not press criminal charges against Michael Kennedy.
Joseph Kennedy said: "I have a very clear public record. Almost everything I do in my private and personal life has been a part of the public record since I've been a very little boy. I don't think I've got a secret left."
The immediate beneficiaries of Kennedy's announcement are Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, a Democrat who is running for governor and now becomes the front-runner for his party's nomination, and Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci, who is a Republican and is running for governor.
Despite the barrage of embarrassing disclosures about his family, Kennedy was tied in the polls with Harshbarger, a feat that some political analysts said was a testimony to the power that the Kennedy name still holds.
Kennedy, who had been laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial run for several years, had raised nearly $2 million for the race.
Pub Date: 8/29/97