Boehner found Kennedy a generous partner in faith

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) needed a favor.

In 2003, Boehner wanted to support Washington’s Catholic schools, which were suffering severe budget shortfalls. He needed an A-list Democrat willing to lend his name to the effort.

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What he got instead was access to one of the most powerful Democratic fundraising machines in politics.

The GOP congressman was setting up a gala dinner complete with celebrities, politicos and media personalities. He went for the most powerful Catholic in Congress, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), to be his partner at the event and balance the politics.

Presented with Boehner’s request to co-chair the inaugural gala dinner, Kennedy “didn’t blink” before signing on; and true to his reputation for generosity, Kennedy’s response went well beyond that.

Kennedy threw himself into the project, offering Boehner the use of his entire fundraising staff to assist with the event. He wrote letters and made personal appeals on behalf of the struggling schools. And perhaps most importantly, Kennedy pulled in real talent: NBC’s Tim Russert to emcee the inaugural evening and comedian Bill Cosby to keep the guests laughing.

Boehner and Kennedy were both lifelong Catholics and graduates of Catholic schools. They had recently worked together on the House and Senate versions, respectively, of the 2002 education law known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

As colleagues, they enjoyed a comfortable rapport, which, according to a staff member, was strengthened by the fact that “Boehner and Kennedy always knew what the other had to do to get legislation passed.”

This dinner was no exception. It marked the start of a five-year collaboration between two men who served radically different constituencies, but who found common ground in their shared commitment to education, service and their faith.

Both lawmakers also believed they had an obligation to give back to the citizens of Washington, their “adopted city.” To help illustrate this point, each year at a pre-gala breakfast Kennedy would share the example of his brother, former President John F. Kennedy, who instructed his entire Cabinet to visit Washington’s public schools and read books to the students.

Dubbed the Boehner-Kennedy Dinner, the annual event takes place each September, and since its inception has raised more than $5 million for the District’s Catholic schools.

Much of the credit for this success belongs to Kennedy. As one Boehner staff member told The Hill, “This event may have been John Boehner’s idea, but it was Sen. Kennedy who really got it off the ground.”

During the last year of his life, Kennedy’s illness forced him to scale back his commitments. As a result, former Washington Mayor Anthony Williams assumed the co-chairman’s role alongside Boehner in 2008.

This year’s Boehner-Williams Dinner will be held on Sept. 23 at the Washington Hilton. Discussions are under way about how best to honor Kennedy at the event.