WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., accused President Donald Trump of dividing the country in the official Democratic response to the State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
"Folks, it would be easy to dismiss the past year as chaos, as partisanship, as politics, but it's far bigger than that," said Kennedy, the 37-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy. "This administration isn't just targeting the laws that protect us. They're targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection."
For the Trump administration, "dignity isn’t something you're born with, but something you measure by your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size," Kennedy added, "not to mention, the gender of your spouse, the country of your birth, the color of your skin, the god of your prayers."
He accused Trump of presenting Americans "one false choice after another" based on the premise that "in order for one to win, another must lose." He said the administration had asked them to pick between "coal miners or single moms, rural communities or inner cities, the coast or the heartland."
"We fight for both," Kennedy said. "Because the strongest, richest, greatest nation in the world should not have to leave any one behind."
Speaking from an autoshop schoolroom in Fall River, Massachusetts, Kennedy highlighted Democratic demands for a higher minimum wage, paid leave and expanded health care, while declaring that "top CEOs making 300 times the average worker is not right" while the stock market soars.
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But it was the lines targeting Trump's demeanor and his alienation of Americans who feel "fractured fault lines across our country" that were the most pointed.
"Bullies may land a punch," Kennedy said. "They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future."
While the president gets the grand stage for the State of the Union, the event is often a showcase for rising stars from the opposition party as well. In Kennedy, Democrats went with a younger member who also points to the glory days of their past.
The Massachusetts Democrat attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School and worked with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic before becoming a prosecutor. Following in his family's footsteps, he went into politics early and won a House seat that opened up by Rep. Barney Frank’s retirement in 2012.
Kennedy is less well-known than various Democrats tagged as potential 2020 presidential contenders, and the televised response is by far his biggest moment on the national stage. But he has drawn some attention this year for speeches and statements in hearings decrying poverty, his grandfather's signature issue, and attacking proposed cuts to health care programs and social spending in stark moral language.
In one viral moment from a hearing in March, he took issue with Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who had described efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act an "act of mercy."
Kennedy said the speaker "must have read different Scripture."
"There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury," Kennedy said at the time. "There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill."
Kennedy joked on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Wednesday about his own viral moment during his response, where the glossy corners of his mouth led some watching to think the Congressman was drooling.
"If only the lip gloss was as successful," he quipped when praised by the host for not getting dry-mouth like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did during his 2013 State of the Union response.
While Kennedy was not at the State of the Union, he invited a transgender soldier who has served in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Patricia King, to attend as a guest. Kennedy has worked on related issues in Congress and King's appearance highlights his opposition to Trump's decision to not allow transgender individuals to serve in the military, a ban that has since been stalled in the courts.
In a separate Spanish language response to Trump, Virginia state legislator Elizabeth Guzman said the president "has pushed a dark and extremist agenda that damages our national values and endangers national security," according to a translation of her prepared remarks. Among other criticisms, Guzman ripped Trump's decision to end the DACA program for young unauthorized immigrants.
Kennedy also brought up "Dreamers," immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, in his remarks and at one point addressed them directly in Spanish as well.
"You are a part of our story," he said. "We will fight for you. We will not walk away."