Posted by: Randy Allgaier | August 26, 2009

The Legacy of Senator Edward M. Kennedy: In lieu of flowers, please pass healthcare reform


The Lion of the Senate roared his last roar. The tributes are flowing in from both sides of the aisle. He was the voice of liberals who was beloved by conservatives in the Senate. He was a defender of social justice. Senator Kennedy was a hero to me and was a hero to millions. As a man living with AIDS his leadership is responsible for me being alive- pure and simple. He is the father of the Ryan White programs. He and his Republican friend Orrin Hatch teamed up to pass this landmark legislation that has helped keep me and countless hundreds of thousands of people with HIV/AIDS alive.

While Mr. Kennedy was physically absent from the capital in recent months, his presence was deeply felt as Congress weighed the most sweeping revisions to America’s health care system in decades, an effort Mr. Kennedy called “the cause of my life.” Passing healthcare reform would complete the extraordinary man’s legacy.

On July 15, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which Mr. Kennedy headed, passed health care legislation, and the battle over the proposed overhaul is now consuming Capitol Hill.

Mr. Kennedy was the last surviving brother of a generation of Kennedys that dominated American politics in the 1960s and that came to embody glamour, political idealism and untimely death. The Kennedy mystique — some call it the Kennedy myth — has held the imagination of the world for decades, and it came to rest on the shoulders of the brother known as Teddy.

Senator Kennedy was a complicated man with a life of tragedy and personal failings leading to redemption and ultimately heroic accomplishment. On the personal level Senator Kennedy showed his own flaws, they weren’t hidden. But he overcame those mistakes and his life is a story of redemption. He is the modern Greek mythological hero whose story is one of promise, tragedy, flaws and ultimately learning painful lessons from confronting those flaws and working through them to live a life of meaning and making an impact on humanity.

The long list of his legislative achievements touched the lives of so many people, particularly those who are less fortunate. He reached across party lines to improve healthcare, civil rights and education.

Mr. Kennedy left his mark on legislation concerning civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor. Although he was a leading spokesman for liberal issues and a favorite target of conservative fund-raising appeals, the hallmark of his legislative success was his ability to find Republican allies to get bills passed. Perhaps the last notable example was his work with President George W. Bush to pass No Child Left Behind, the education law pushed by Mr. Bush in 2001; good legislation without the appropriate funding requests from the President which mired the program. He also co-sponsored immigration legislation with Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. One of his greatest friends and collaborators in the Senate was Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican.

Sen. Orrin Hatch said that Senator Kennedy was “iconic, larger than life United States senator whose influence cannot be overstated.” In his remarks Hatch said, “Many have come before, and many will come after, but Ted Kennedy’s name will always be remembered as someone who lived and breathed the United States Senate and the work completed within its chamber,” Hatch said in a statement. “When I first came to the United States Senate I was filled with conservative fire in my belly and an itch to take on any and everyone who stood in my way, including Ted Kennedy. As I began working within the confines of my office I soon found out that while we almost always disagreed on most issues, once in a while we could actually get together and find the common ground, which is essential in passing legislation.” Hatch’s statement included a long list of measures he called “highlights of the Kennedy- Hatch legislative accomplishments,” including the Orphan Drug Act, the Ryan White Aids Act, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation. He was deeply involved in renewals of the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing law of 1968. He helped establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He built federal support for community health care centers, increased cancer research financing and helped create the Meals on Wheels program. He was a major proponent of a health and nutrition program for pregnant women and infants.

In addition to healthcare, Senator Kennedy’s most notable focus was civil rights, “still the unfinished business of America,” he often said. In 1982, he led a successful fight to defeat the Reagan administration’s effort to weaken the Voting Rights Act. In one of those bipartisan alliances that were hallmarks of his legislative successes, Mr. Kennedy worked with Senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, to secure passage of the voting rights measure, and Mr. Dole got most of the credit.

Perhaps his greatest success on civil rights came in 1990 with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required employers and public facilities to make “reasonable accommodation” for the disabled. When the law was finally passed, Mr. Kennedy and others told how their views on the bill had been shaped by having relatives with disabilities. Mr. Kennedy cited his mentally disabled sister, Rosemary, and his son who had lost a leg to cancer.

Senator Kennedy was always a friend to the LGBT community and fought hard for our rights.

It has been my great privilege to have worked in some small way on reauthorization of Senator Kennedy’s Ryan White CARE Act in 1996, 2000 and 2006. Senator Kennedy and his staff were key allies and for as long as I live I will have pride in knowing that I worked on this legislation. A key hallmark of the legislation is the component of local community planning for the use of federal resources. For more than 8 years I have been able to help serve people living with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco by having a seat on a local community planning body that was formed as a direct result of this legislation.

Affordable, accessible and universal healthcare was Senator Kennedy’s lifelong dream. His legacy will be complete once we pass healthcare reform. Let us remember Senator Kennedy by ensuring that legacy is complete. In lieu of flowers, please pass healthcare.

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