Raised in a prominent Connecticut political family, Barbara Bailey Kennelly became one of the highest–ranking women in the history of the Democratic Party and the U.S. House. Unlike many feminists who sought to challenge the political system from the outside, Congresswoman Kennelly capitalized on her name, “lifelong familiarity with public service,” and political connections to gain positions of power in the House leadership—a coveted seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and the vice chairmanship of the Democratic Caucus.1
Barbara Ann Bailey was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 10, 1936, daughter of John Bailey, a Connecticut political boss and state Democratic leader and, later, chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the 1960s. He was widely credited with having engineered John F. Kennedy’s presidential nomination and victory in 1960. Her mother, Barbara L. Bailey, was an advocate for women’s rights and had worked as a teacher prior to marrying in 1933. Barbara Ann Bailey attended St. Joseph Cathedral School and graduated from Mount St. Joseph Academy in West Hartford in 1954. She earned a B.A. from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., in 1958, a certificate in business administration from Harvard Business School in 1959, and an M.A. in government from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1971. Barbara Bailey married John Kennelly, speaker of the Connecticut house. They had four children: Eleanor, Barbara, Louise, and John. Barbara Kennelly spent her early career outside of politics, however, working as the director of two social service organizations. Kennelly was nearly 40 when she was appointed in 1975 to fill a vacancy on the Hartford court of common council. She was elected to the post the next year and served for a total of four years. In 1978, when Connecticut Secretary of State Gloria Schaffer left office, Kennelly launched her own successful campaign to win election to the post against the wishes of Democratic leaders, cobbling together a coalition that observers said was reminiscent of her father’s deal–making skills.2 The secretary of state’s office had been a traditional steppingstone for women politicians in Connecticut: in the 1940s Chase Woodhouse and, in the 1970s, Ella Grasso, both launched congressional careers from the post which had earned them wide name recognition with voters.
On September 8, 1981, six–term Democratic Congressman William R. Cotter died, leaving a vacancy in a district encompassing Hartford, and more than a dozen other small towns in central Connecticut. The largest employers were several major insurance corporations, a defense contractor, and state government agencies. Despite a large white–collar workforce, Hartford itself was rated as one of the poorest midsized cities in the nation, having suffered during the economic downturn of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Kennelly won the Democratic nomination uncontested and faced Republican Ann Uccello, the former mayor of Hartford in the special election.3 The campaign turned on the economic policies of the Ronald Reagan administration, with Kennelly sharply criticizing the President’s budget and tax plans and Uccello defending them. Kennelly had built–in advantages, running in a district safely held by Democrats for 22 years and using her name recognition to bring in big political contributions. She outspent Uccello by about a 3–to–1 margin.4 “To me, in 1981, it is very important to be the daughter of John Bailey,” Kennelly said. “I used to try to separate it. I don’t try to separate it anymore because the more I am in this business, the prouder I am of him.” Nevertheless, she added, “I’m not running as John Bailey’s daughter. I’m running as Barbara Kennelly, a woman who has established a record.5” On January 12, 1982, Kennelly won a special election to the 97th Congress (1981–1983) by defeating Uccello with about 59 percent of the vote.6 She took her seat on January 25, 1982, when she was assigned to the Committee on Government Operations and the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Kennelly was returned to Congress later in the fall of 1982, winning 68 percent of the vote against Republican candidate Herschel Klein. She never was seriously challenged thereafter, serving a total of nine terms in the House.
Congresswoman Kennelly drew on her father’s advice for working within the existing power structure and cracking the old boys’ network by socializing with the Democratic leadership. She worked hard to ingratiate herself, polishing her golf game in order to mingle with the mostly male membership.7 Her efforts paid dividends. Kennelly quickly established herself and set a number of firsts for a woman Member. In her first full term during the 98th Congress (1983–1985), she left her prior committee assignments to join the influential Ways and Means Committee, where she served on the Subcommittees on Human Resources and Select Revenue Measures. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts also named Congresswoman Kennelly to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee which made committee appointments and set the broad outlines of the party’s legislative agenda. In 1987, she became the first woman to serve on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Two years later, she was appointed Chief Deputy Majority Whip, the first woman named to that position. During the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), Kennelly ran against Louise Slaughter of New York and captured the vice chairmanship of the Democratic Caucus. At the time, it made her the highest ranking woman ever in the Democratic Party leadership. As a leader in her party, Kennelly’s voting record rarely strayed from the Democratic line.
The seat on Ways and Means gave Kennelly a powerful post from which to tend to her district and other longtime legislative interests that had national reach: child support, housing credits, welfare reform, and tax reform. “Her father must have injected her and her mother must have fed her political milk,” said her friend New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, “because she really has this sixth sense. Obviously she’s going to be concerned about how something affects her district, but she looks at the bigger picture.”8 The Ways and Means assignment was particularly important for the insurance industry which resided in her district. Kennelly helped pass measures that both lowered its tax burden and restrained new tax regulations. In the 100th Congress (1987–1989), over the wishes of powerful Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, Kennelly presented and won passage for a scaled–back plan to regulate tax–free earnings on premium payments.9 A self–admitted “policy wonk,” she pushed legislation to reduce the vesting period for pension plans, to allow the terminally ill to collect life insurance benefits early and tax–free, to increase the minimum wage, and to defeat a bill that would have denied illegal immigrants a public education.
Kennelly supported women’s rights as a member of the Women’s Caucus, though she admitted that it was only at the urging of her daughters that she began to pursue women’s issues more vigorously during her House career. “Am I going to tell you I am going to change the world of [Ways and Means Chairman] Danny Rostenkowski? No,” she said in 1983. “Am I going to try? Yes.”10 Later, reflecting on the fact that only 25 of her colleagues in the House were women, Kennelly said, “We are desperate in Congress for more women.”11 In 1983, Kennelly introduced the Child Support Enforcement Amendment, which required states to withhold earnings if child support payments were more than a month late. The House and Senate unanimously passed the bill in 1984.12 Kennelly again supported strengthening laws against “deadbeat” parents who were delinquent on their payments in the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill.13 She also used her seat on Ways and Means to help preserve the childcare federal tax deduction and to expand the standard deduction for single parents.14 She joined other women lawmakers in 1991 to protest the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in the face of sexual harassment charges by Anita Hill. Kennelly also supported women’s reproductive rights.
Kennelly did not run for re–election in 1998, choosing instead to give up her safe House seat for a bid to run for the governor’s office in Connecticut. She easily won the Democratic nomination, but her campaign lacked funds and never found its stride.15 Kennelly suffered a double–digit loss to the well–financed Republican incumbent John Rowland. Afterwards, Kennelly was appointed Associate Commissioner and Counselor at the Social Security Administration, overseeing the office of retirement policy. She also served as an advisor and lobbyist for a national law firm. In April 2002, Kennelly was named president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. Following the death of her husband in 1995, Kennelly resided in Connecticut.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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