SALT LAKE CITY Michael Kennedy looks like central casting's blueprint for a GOP up-and-comer. Just ask his parents.
"I grew up in a family of old-school Utah Democrats," Kennedy said. "As a kid, my parents used to refer to me as ('Family Ties' character) Alex P. Keaton because I always had these more Republican tendencies, especially compared to my family."
Kennedy, 35, is Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch's new chief of staff. In the months and years to come he'll likely draw on every ounce of his preparation and individuality because he joins Team Hatch at a critical juncture, with the six-term senator fighting for his political life and gearing up for reelection in 2012. And as Kennedy enters the fray, he does so with the knowledge that he wasn't Hatch's first choice for the job.
A Salt Lake City native, Kennedy boasts a prominent pedigree (his parents are John Paul Kennedy, a judge for Utah's Third Judicial District, and former chairman of the Utah State Board of Education Jill Kennedy), Ivy League education (Harvard graduate) and résumé rich enough to belie his relative youth (employment experience in the private and public sectors of politics, first as a paid lobbyist for Lee & Smith and subsequently as Utah State University's Vice President for Federal and State Relations).
But there's more to him than meets the eye. Some digging in and around Kennedy's back-story further unearths the type of details that won't show up in a press release yet leave little doubt Kennedy is more than just a two-dimensional list of characteristics and accomplishments — he's also his own man. For starters, Kennedy grew up to be a Republican despite his family's Democrat sympathies. And after following in John Paul's and Jill's footsteps by choosing to attend Harvard, Michael deviated from family tradition soon after arriving in Cambridge to pursue his personal passion.
The fifth of six children, Michael Kennedy was born at LDS Hospital. Even though he didn't adopt his parents' political ideology as his own, he still warmly considers them to be two of the most influential people in his life.
"My parents have always lived their life with honor and integrity, and have probably been my best examples for how I should try to pattern my life," he said. "They're just stalwart people (who) always taught me to always do the right thing."
Kennedy followed both parents and two siblings to Harvard. A talented choral vocalist, he initially planned to sing in the university's glee club just as his father had. And Michael did indeed join the Glee Club — although the arrangement lasted only one week. Craving an a capella experience, Kennedy quit the Glee Club and enlisted in the Harvard Din & Tonics. He never looked back.
"I wanted to do the a capella scene," Kennedy recounts. "'The Dins,' as they're affectionately known, do a world tour every other summer, and so that was very appealing to me. The summer right before my mission (to Paris) and then the summer of my junior year, we sang around the world for 12 weeks, kind of literally singing for our supper. We circumnavigated the globe and sang in 20 countries or something like that. It was really great, really great."
After graduating from Harvard, he worked briefly on both coasts before settling in for seven years at Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Lee & Smith. Kennedy's client list included several Beehive State municipalities and entities such as Utah State University and Utah Transit Authority. While in the course of lobbying, he met his wife, Natalie Heninger, a staffer for Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, following her graduation from BYU.
In 2007, Utah State brought Kennedy in-house as its vice president for Federal and State Relations. He worked most days in Salt Lake City, often interfacing with Utah legislatures and also making monthly visits to the nation's capitol.
Early last month, Kennedy received a call that forever altered the trajectory of his career: it was Hatch on the line, offering Kennedy the chance to replace outgoing chief of staff Jace Johnson, and thereby become the 10th chief of staff during Hatch's 34 years of service in the U.S. Senate. Kennedy accepted.
The Deseret News recently learned that Kennedy was not the first person offered the job. That first choice was actually Scott Simpson, the former Hatch staffer and current president of the Utah Credit Union Association. Simpson respectfully declined the position.
"Fundamentally, it just came down to a family decision — a personal decision — displacement," Simpson said during a phone interview.
Regardless of the timing or circumstance of Kennedy's appointment, former GOP state chair Stan Lockhart believes Kennedy will ultimately prove to be a sage hire for Hatch.
"I think (Kennedy) is a man of integrity," Lockhart said. "He's very bright, sharp and savvy, and he knows the political process very well."
Hatch's chief of staff possesses an impressive resume
Name: Michael Kennedy
Position: Chief of Staff for Sen. Orrin Hatch
Hometown: Salt Lake City
Education: West High School; Harvard University
Previous employment: Vice president for Federal and State Relations, Utah State University; political lobbyist, Lee & Smith.
Notable: Parents are John Paul Kennedy, judge for Utah's Third Judicial District, and Jill Kennedy, former chairman of the Utah State Board of Education. Served LDS mission to Paris. During college sang in Harvard a cappella musical group, the Din & Tonics. Married to BYU grad Natalie Heninger.