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Public Affairs Programs

60th Anniversary Event: Balancing Powers

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Tuesday, September 20, 2022, 1:00 PM - 2:00

On Tuesday, September 20, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate hosted a virtual conversation with former staffers and colleagues of the Senator in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the beginning of Ted Kennedy’s long and impactful career.

Moderated by Kimberly Atkin Stohr, Balancing Powers examined how Senator Kennedy drew upon his influence and collaborations with 10 presidential administrations to achieve great policy strides, and his work on the Senate Judiciary Committee to help shape the U.S. Courts. The panel included Jeff Blattner, Special Assistant Attorney General, Colorado Dept. of Justice and former chief counsel on Judiciary Committee; Judge Patti Saris, US District Court Judge, and former Staff Counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Secretary Margaret Spellings, President & CEO of Texas 2036; former Secretary of Education under President Bush.

The conversation started with the panelists sharing their memories of Senator Kennedy’s commitment to public service. “He always embodied it himself and put himself in the game,” said Secretary Spellings. “He was great in his own unique way of being an evangelizer and aggregator of people around a certain issue.”

“I was a Boston girl who came down to Washington D.C. with almost no experience. I thought I would be doing Civic Rights, Women’s Rights, and the great issues of the day,” remembered Judge Saris. “And then I was assigned to Government Relations, and I realized it was a classic way of how the Senator grappled with the issues of the time. He cared deeply about making the executive and judiciary better operating entities.”

“One thing not mentioned much is Senator Kennedy’s love for the Constitution himself,” said Blattner. “We were talking one day and he started quoting to me something that occurred at the Constitutional Convention … It turns out that when he was recuperating from a plane crash, he read the entire notes from the Constitutional Convention. That appreciation on the role of the law to make the government work, and achieve justice for all Americans, was deeply embedded in his values and his work. And you see it in his impact on the judiciary.”

Moderator Kim Atkin Stohr next asked the panelists if it was easier to reach a compromise across the aisle during Senator Kennedy’s time in Congress.

“Why was he able to make compromises? Primarily because he was The Liberal #LionOfTheSenate, and would fight quite hard,” said Blattner. “Republican Senators knew that if he made a deal, it would stick. And there’s no one today who can do that.”

Judge Patti Saris remembered how staffers used to congregate together to help bridge the divide between party lines: “We used to have lunch together … We used to sing together! It became personal friendships that overcame policy disagreements.”

“We had more centrist people on both sides of the aisle that didn’t think ‘compromise’ was a dirty word,” said Spellings. “And also the values and things that were untouchable, like the Voting Rights Act, and Title 9, and all these things that are suddenly now open for discussion. That wasn’t the sensibility. They were things that were settled in the past, and that we would build on.”

Atkin Stohr: “Can we get to a point again, using the same approaches that Senator Kennedy took, in order to get a bipartisan compromise?”

“There are very few consequences for doing nothing,” said Spellings. “I think there have been real gains made in things that have been beneficial like infrastructure and COVID response, but there is very little penalty to being an obstructionist.”

“People don’t understand what a beautiful person the Senator was,” said Judge Saris. “He treated people like people, rather than in a political way. If you’re going to have a good deliberative body, you need trust.”

“Balancing Powers” was the second event in the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the beginning of Ted Kennedy’s long and impactful career. Read more here about the first event, “Working Across the Aisle”, that was hosted September 13 and included Melody Barnes, Executive Director of the UVA Karsh Center of Democracy and Senator Kennedy’s former chief counsel on Judiciary Committee; Patricia Knight, Owner of Knight Capitol Consultants and former Chief of Staff to Senator Orrin Hatch; Michael Myers, former Managing Director of Policy, the Rockefeller Foundation and Senator Kennedy’s former chief counsel and staff director; and Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY).

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