Kennelly, Barbara (1936—)

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Kennelly, Barbara (1936—)

American politician who was a Democratic congressional representative from Connecticut (1982–1998). Born Barbara Bailey in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 10, 1936; daughter of John Bailey (a politician) and Barbara (Leary) Bailey; Trinity College, Washington, D.C., B.A. in Economics, 1958; graduated from Harvard-Radcliffe School of Business Administration, 1959; Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, M.A., 1973; married James J. Kennelly (a lawyer and Connecticut legislator), on September 26, 1959; children: Eleanor Bride Kennelly; Barbara Leary Kennelly; Louise Moran Kennelly; John Bailey Kennelly.

The daughter of Barbara Leary Bailey and legendary party boss John Bailey, who served as chair of the Democratic National Committee under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Barbara Kennelly entered the political arena in 1975, when she became a member of the Hartford Court of Common Council. Serving as secretary of state for Connecticut (1979–81) and elected to Congress in 1982, Kennelly was a congressional representative until 1998, distinguishing herself by becoming the third woman ever appointed to the prestigious Ways and Means Committee. She later became the first woman ever to serve on the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the first to be appointed Chief Deputy Majority Whip. Early in the 105th Congress, she was reelected for a second term as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, making her the highest ranking woman and the fourth ranking Democrat in the House.

Barbara Kennelly was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, and graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., in 1958; in 1973, she would receive a master's in government from Trinity College in Hartford. Married to lawyer and politician James J. Kennelly in 1959, Kennelly had four children and worked in social service before joining the Hartford City Council in 1975, after which she won a full term on her own. In 1978, when Gloria Schaffer , the Democratic secretary of state, resigned her post, Kennelly made a successful run for the office, drawing inspiration from her mentor, the late former Connecticut Governor Ella T. Grasso . "She was a great strength to me," she said. "She proved a woman could do it."

Kennelly served in state office until 1981, when she announced her candidacy for the congressional seat vacated by the death of Representative William R. Cotter. Nominated by acclamation, she easily won the special election against Republican Ann P. Uccello , a former mayor of Hartford. Kennelly was subsequently reelected six times, never receiving less than 60% of the vote.

Characterized by Democratic Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as "a work horse and not a show horse," Kennelly's congressional tenure was marked by her quiet presence and her ability to create strong alliances from diverse groups. "Barbara's very good at trying to piece together a consensus out of conflicting viewpoints," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt. "That's what leadership is: the ability to bring diverse opinions together for a consensus and then fight for that consensus." Kennelly was committed to insurance issues—a prime employment sector in Hartford—and made enormous strides in the area of child support; her first bill to become law established a tougher mechanism for enforcing court-ordered child support payments across state lines. Later, she was instrumental in the landmark 1996 welfare-reform bill, which included a provision for denying driver's and professional licenses to parents who refused to pay child support. From her seat on the Ways and Means Committee, Kennelly also fought for the survival of the social security system and was a leading advocate for pension reform. In the area of health care, she championed long-term care reform and increased access to mammograms and other health screening. She also lead the fight to secure increased health coverage for children.

Addressing the plight of working families, Kennelly helped secure the Earned Income Tax Credit, allowing low-income employees to keep more of their earnings. She also sponsored legislation to let terminally ill patients collect life insurance benefits early, and tax free, to help eliminate devastating family debt. She additionally authored the 1996 legislation that reduced vesting periods for multi-employer pension plans.

Kennelly, who credits her three daughters with getting her up to speed on feminist issues, was extremely vocal in her outrage concerning the Senate's desire to vote on the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court before hearing Anita Hill 's allegations of sexual harassment. She petitioned for female representation at Bill Clinton's Inauguration Day luncheon in 1993, arguing that it might be prudent for a president who campaigned on diversity to have a woman present at the event. Kennelly has also served as an inspiration to the many young democratic congresswomen she mentored and guided during her years in Congress. "She set goals for us," said Representative Karen Thurman (Dem.-Florida), whom Kennelly helped get appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee. "She led and gave us an example in which to follow. I don't know many people who can say that." In a further tribute to her efforts in promoting women and women's issues, Kennelly received the Women's Research and Education Initiative's 10th annual American Woman Award (1998). Past recipients include Kennelly's own mentor, Lindy Boggs , who was instrumental in urging her to pursue her appointment to Ways and Means.

During her congressional career, Kennelly occasionally expressed an interest in moving up to a statewide office. She was discussed as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 1990, when Democrat William O'Neill retired, and again in 1993, when independent Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. announced he was stepping down. She chose not to enter those races, however, opting to remain a behind-the-scenes force in the House. In 1997, however, Kennelly decided to forgo a ninth term in Congress and to enter the Connecticut gubernatorial race against first-term Republican Governor John G. Rowland. Plagued early on in her campaign by financial woes and difficulty getting her message out to voters, she was ultimately unsuccessful in her bid. But Kennelly has never been one to dwell in the past. "You've got to go on," she said, in answer to those who questioned her decision to run for governor in the first place. "I've tried to tell my children that all the time. Go on, don't look back."


Duncan, Philip D., and Christine C. Lawrence. Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America 1996: The 104th Congress.

Haigh, Susan. "From House to Home." The (New London, Connecticut) Day, September 20. 1998.

Peter, Jennifer. "Kennelly crafting a separate political legacy." The [New London, Connecticut] Day, October 18, 1997.

Women in Congress 1917–1990.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Kennelly, Barbara (1936—)

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