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The Political Early Bloomer

NCSL’s new president, Brian Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, began his public service journey while still in grade school.

By Kelley Griffin  |  September 12, 2023

NCSL’s newly installed president, Rhode Island Speaker Pro Tem Brian Patrick Kennedy, got involved in politics earlier than most. He was out there at age 7, working with his brother to help throughout the day his father won a seat on the Hopkinton Town Council. It made a strong impression on Kennedy, and by the time he was in college in 1981, he was ready to help in public service as well.

“After spending three years as a page while at Providence College, I knew I wanted to return to the Legislature some day as a member of the House,” Kennedy says.

It didn’t take long. Six years after college, he won the seat he has held for 35 years—attending every day of every session for 30 years straight, a record among Rhode Island legislators.

“I decided long ago that if I was not enjoying the job, then I would retire. But each day continues to bring new challenges, and I’m still loving my role as a public servant.”

—Brian Patrick Kennedy, Rhode Island speaker pro tem and NCSL president

Not long after his election, Kennedy got involved with NCSL. He wanted to connect with others across the country doing this important work and take advantage of the support NCSL provides. He grew in that role, too, serving on standing committees and helping to shape their evolution.

Kennedy says he did not set out expecting to spend all these years in the Legislature.

“I decided long ago that if I was not enjoying the job, then I would retire,” he says. “But each day continues to bring new challenges, and I’m still loving my role as a public servant.”

State Legislatures News reached out to Kennedy to ask about his political past, legislative challenges and plans for NCSL.

What was your first introduction to the idea of serving in elected office?

My brother and I served as runners on Election Day, gathering up lists of those who voted—every voter was assigned a number—so that the workers at the election headquarters could tally who had voted. We ran from the Ashaway Recreation Center, where voters were waiting in very long lines to make their choices, to the local Hopkinton Democrats voting headquarters less than a mile away. Once the lists were gathered, the names and numbers for each voter were crossed off the list, and candidates called those who still hadn’t voted.

It was a very long election night because of voting machine issues, and people were still standing in lines to vote well after midnight—the polling places were supposed to close at 9 p.m., but if you were in line, then you could vote. People wanted their vote to count, and this was my first understanding of how important the right to vote was to the American people.

When I got to the Statehouse as a House page, I learned about the day-to-day work that a legislator must do, from drafting bills, getting things copied, and then answering constituent concerns. I arrived as an elected official and was sworn in for the first time on my birthday on Jan. 3, 1989.

Did you imagine you would devote so many years to this role?

I have always loved my job as a state representative. I have been effective for my district and a true problem-solver. After 35 years, I have contacts at all levels of state government and can get problems resolved for my constituents. I decided long ago that if I was not enjoying the job, I would retire, but each day continues to bring new challenges, and I’m still loving my role as a public servant. I am proud to say that I managed to attend every session day for 30 years, before I missed my first legislative day. It was so monumental that the Providence Journal ran a story that said, “Something has happened in Rhode Island today that hasn’t happened in 30 years! Brian Patrick Kennedy missed a legislative day.” In truth, I was invited to visit Israel by the Israeli consul general, and I almost turned it down to avoid missing a day. While I am truly devoted to my legislative duties and my constituents, the speaker noted that there will likely never be another state legislator that serves in Rhode Island who will go 30 years without missing a legislative day, and so I traveled with no regrets.

Over the years, there have been so many changes in the Rhode Island House. When I began, all the bills and resolutions were introduced as paper versions, printed out and tied into a binder. The most electronic thing we had was the voting board. Through the years, the session times changed so that now our members can work a full day before the start of session. We meet each day at 4 p.m., which is unique among the legislatures, and then hold committee hearings after session. It allows us to work a daily job and then take care of the people’s business each afternoon.

What are a couple of the big challenges you face as a legislator and speaker pro tem? 

I served as the chair of the House Committee on Corporations for 20 years. It dealt with banking, financial services, insurance, alcoholic beverages, municipal legislation and so much more. I never missed a hearing, took copious notes of every witness and created a color-coded report that was the envy of every committee chair. Recommendations on legislation were sent to the speaker and the majority leader with a thorough synopsis of every bill, with a green for “pass,” red for “no passage” and a yellow for “let’s think about it.”

When I became speaker pro tempore, it was an opportunity to play a different role in the House leadership as well as an opportunity to preside over the institution that I have dedicated my life to for decades. As always, there are challenges in Rhode Island, particularly regarding the state budget each year. That never changes, even with federal funds distributed during recent years.

Do those experiences inform your leadership with NCSL?

I became involved with NCSL long ago because I was looking for opportunities with a bipartisan legislative organization that would provide ideas for legislation and interactions with state legislators from across the country. As state legislatures, we truly are the place for ideas and policy, and we serve as the laboratories of democracy. We actually work to get things done, which is not what happens at the federal level.

Over the years, I served on various standing committees, including as chair of the Communications, Financial Services and Interstate Commerce Committee, a member of the Executive Committee and the NCSL Foundation, and since the 2021 Summit as an officer. I served on a bylaws revision committee that proposed some major changes at NCSL, including requiring co-chairs for all standing committees, task forces and working groups to increase bipartisanship. It has been a positive change that ensures that both major political parties are fully engaged at all levels at NCSL.

What has your involvement with NCSL meant to you?

My involvement with NCSL has really been a positive experience. While I served many roles in the past, even when I cycled off the NCSL Executive Committee and Foundation, I continued to attend the Executive Committees at my own expense, because I wanted to stay involved, even if I didn’t have a vote in the process. I encourage colleagues to get involved with a working group or task force, since they provide unparalleled ways to gain a greater understanding of complex issues on everything from cybersecurity and taxation to social issues, mental health and children issues.

What are your priorities as president of NCSL, and why are they important to you and the organization?

I have a goal to see all 50 states and the U.S. territories participate fully at NCSL Summits. I want state legislative leaders to know that we are an important resource for their members, and that we provide one of the best nonpartisan research services in the country. We are a bipartisan organization, and we work for Republicans and Democrats and independents, and we are the only organization that works for and with legislative staff and actually includes legislative staff as part of the NCSL officers. That makes NCSL unique among U.S. legislative organizations.

As president-elect, I recognized that we had not looked at standing committees for many years, and just days before becoming president, the NCSL Executive Committee unanimously approved a committee restructuring that will see NCSL go from eight standing committees to 11 in 2024. We hope that it will bring about more participation from both state legislators as well as legislative staff on the important issues that we deal with at NCSL. These committees will meet during the offseason via videoconferencing to conduct committee business and to ensure that committees will play a greater role at the Legislative Summit. It will also provide more bipartisan opportunities for legislators to serve as chairs and vice chairs and for legislative staff to also serve as committee staff.

Kelley Griffin hosts NCSL’s “Across the Aisle” podcast. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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