The Cambrian

He was a three-sport star at Coast Union. Now he’s at Notre Dame aiming for political success

It’s a long ways from Cambria to the grand halls of our nation’s capitol. And Cambria’s quaint beach-town vibe couldn’t be further from the climate of national politics these days.

But it appears that 2018 Coast Union High School graduate Riley Kennedy has been able to bridge the gap in the years since he’s left his hometown.

Could Kennedy one day be elected to Congress — or even the presidency?

Well, the scholar and gifted three-sport student athlete chose Notre Dame over Georgetown with an eye on a future career in politics. And he’s already managed to dip his toes into the waters of grass roots, street-wise politics canvassing for a candidate who’s also a player in national politics.

Dipping his feet into politics

Kennedy returned last month to Cambria for the summer following completion of his freshman year at Notre Dame.

True to his forecast, the genial Kennedy not only is majoring in political science, but he chose the highly regarded “Hesburgh Program in Public Policy” for his minor. He invested “about 10 hours a week” door-to-door canvassing for South Bend’s mayoral candidate James Mueller, presently Chief of Staff for South Bend’s Mayor Pete Buttigeig (aka Mayor Pete).

Buttigeig is running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency.

“It was nice getting beyond theory and all the things you learn in school,” Kennedy said in an interview beneath the enormous Port Orford cedar (planted in 1900) behind the Cambria Historical Museum, “and actually working for someone who is running for office. Getting out, knocking on doors, talking to the people.”

Mueller (no relation to special prosecutor Bob Mueller) won the May 7 mayoral primary with 37% of the vote and faces a Republican challenger this fall. Kennedy believes it’s a “foregone conclusion” that Mueller will win the mayoral race, and he also believes Buttigeig — whom he has met twice — would do well as president based on the quality of his leadership in “cleaning up” South Bend.

“I do think he’d make a good president. He’s a really smart guy,” Kennedy said. “I was in South Bend in 2012... and comparing it to 2018... the town has blown up. Downtown has grown, and now he’s pushing money toward outer neighborhoods. He did a really good job. I don’t know how well that will translate, but it’s a good sign.

“People like him. What he has done is a good barometer for his campaign.”

Salutatorian Riley Kennedy leads the crowd in applause for the teachers and staff during the Coast Union High School graduation in 2018. Joe Johnston

Views on the issues of the day

For those who observed Kennedy’s Coast Union athletic and academic achievements, there was no doubt he would succeed at whatever he chose to do.

His near perfect scholarship earned him salutatorian honors. He won the Top Prosecutor award in the annual San Luis Obispo County Mock Trial Competition, beating out talented students from seven high schools.

He’s not shy about expressing his views, but he backs assessments up with knowledge.

Asked if he believes President Trump should be impeached, Kennedy paused. He believes that “obstruction of justice” — and Trump’s alleged violations of the Constitution’s “emoluments” clause — constitute impeachable offenses. Yet Kennedy is “leaning toward “no” for the simple reason that it would never get past the Republican Senate.

“All it would do is stir Trump’s base up in the coming presidential election,” he said.

The economy is up, Kennedy continued, “but it is not helping a lot of people. Average wages have not increased. The tax cuts didn’t improve their lives at all. So Democrats should shift the focus from Trump, to, ‘Here’s our plan; here’s how we’re going to help families to live better lives.’”

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Senior Riley Kennedy was named Coast Union High School Male Athlete of the Year for the 2017-18 school year. Cambrian file photo

Once an athlete, always an athlete

His voracious appetite to compete in high school translated into stirring success on the football field, basketball court and baseball diamond at Coast Union.

He was named Coast Union’s Male Athlete of the Year for 2017-2018. In his senior year, Kennedy was “MVP” in Bronco basketball and football — at quarterback and running back, he enjoyed ramming into and through opponents for those pivotal first downs. He won the Coach’s Award on the baseball team, playing infield and taking his turn on the mound; late in his senior year, Kennedy pitched a perfect game against Shandon.

He wasn’t recruited to play sports at Notre Dame, but he still had a strong desire to play. So he joined an intramural flag football team called “Zahm,” the name of his dorm. With Kennedy as quarterback, his team won the championship.

He also found time to play intramural basketball and baseball. When asked what kind of a U.S. president he would make, the 20-year-old Kennedy took a moment, “Oh man, that’s a long way in the future. That’s over 17 years away.”

His more immediate goal — beyond excelling academically and in intramural sports at Notre Dame — is to land an internship with a congressman or senator.

“I want to work on society’s problems but also learn so I can be better at helping people,” he said.

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