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Does Mark Kennedy have higher goals?
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Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., is halfway through his second term in the House of Representatives. (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
Some of the biggest political speculation in Minnesota has nothing to do with the 2004 election. Instead, it's looking ahead to 2006 when DFL incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton is up for re-election. One of the names most often mentioned as a Republican who might challenge Dayton is 6th District Congressman Mark Kennedy, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. Kennedy says he's proud of his accomplishments in Washington. He says voters appreciate GOP efforts to cut taxes, increase foreign trade and streamline government.

Washington, D.C. — Mark Kennedy ushered in the new century by changing occupations. He shed a successful business career, for life in politics.

"My focus has always been on how do we get things done. You hear stories about how it's impossible to do that in Congress, and actually I've found that we have been able to get things done," Kennedy says.

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Image Al Eisele, editor of The Hill

Kennedy says the biggest thing Congress got done was passing President Bush's more than $1.5 trillion in tax cuts which Kennedy says are helping turn around the economy.

Mark Kennedy, 46, is a Republican who grew up in rural Minnesota. Kennedy is an ardent supporter of expanding foreign trade, lowering taxes and reducing government regulations. He opposes legalized abortion and further restrictions on gun ownership. Kennedy talks a lot about shifting control from the federal government to local governments.

"Too much of the power at the local level transferred to Washington, so a big part of why I ran was to try to push that power back to the counties, the cities and the school boards," he says.

Kennedy takes great pride in the fact he was the first man in his family to attend college. Kennedy, his wife and four children live in Watertown, about 30 minutes west of Minneapolis.

Kennedy attracted national attention when, in his first bid for elected office, he upset 2nd District Democratic Congressman David Minge in 2000. Most thought Minge was a shoo-in for re-election, but Kennedy won by a razor-thin margin.

In addition to enthusiastically supporting the Bush administration's tax cuts, Kennedy backed the White House's push for "fast-track" trade authority, which cleared the way for the president to negotiate trade deals outside of congressional oversight.

"The presidential trade authority passed by one vote," Kennedy says proudly. "I was that one vote, because I think that trade is critically important for our agricultural economy, for our overall economy. We are an exporting state."

I don't know if I'm running for Senate. But if I am, I'm for me.
- U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy

According to Congressional Quarterly, more than any other member of Minnesota's congressional delegation, Mark Kennedy has voted with the White House. The Minnesota DFL calls Kennedy a "slavish follower of the Republican Party line." But Kennedy insists his votes are rooted in ideology, not loyalty or partisanship.

"I would suggest that it's a good thing the party is usually right, because I vote what my values have taught me," said Kennedy. "There have been times when I've disagreed with the party, when I've disagreed with the president."

Kennedy has opposed the Bush administration's calls for exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee -- ANWR. He also spoke out against the White House's decision to impose tariffs on foreign steel, and he applauded the recent lifting of the steel tariffs.

Kennedy also bucked the administration's "No Child Left Behind" education law, as did the majority of Minnesota's delegation.

Kennedy ran for re-election last year, but not in the 2nd District where he was originally elected. Because of the once-every-10-year congressional redistricting, Kennedy ran in the newly-configured 6th District. He had to introduce himself to a new group of voters. The new district left him with only about 10 percent of his original territory.

But Kennedy won again, soundly defeating DFLer Janet Robert, even though Robert outspent him and hammered him with attack ads. Kennedy says the attacks backfired.

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Image Amy Walter

"I think it's a credit to the voters that they were able to see through all of the misleading propaganda that was out there, to really understand what the true facts and the record of accomplishment that I have established in my first term."

Now about a year into his second term, Kennedy has been concentrating on transportation. He's promoting a law that would allow states to charge tolls to raise money to add lanes on federal interstate highways. Kennedy introduced his Freeing Alternatives for Speedy Transportation --or FAST ACT -- last spring.

Kennedy says it's a revolutionary approach to easing traffic congestion without raising taxes. "My Fast Act has been one of the most significant things. We've had governors and state highway transportation departments from across the country, and associations from across the spectrum, sign on to that," Kennedy says. "I think that will transform the highway bill in a way that, as the Heritage Foundation says, the most significant change in transportation policy since the highway bill itself."

At a recent school assembly appearance in Maple Lake, Kennedy was introduced as "Senator Kennedy." The slip is understandable, given the growing speculation Kennedy is gearing up for a Senate race in 2006 against first-term Democratic incumbent Mark Dayton.

Al Eisele, editor of The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper about Congress, says Kennedy stands out as a hard worker. Eisele is convinced Kennedy's ambitions lie well beyond his seat in the House.

"He's one of the brighter young congressman of both parties," says Eisele. "Clearly he has designs on higher office; I think he wants to run for the Senate."

Kennedy says he's not interested in fanning that speculation. He says he's focused on the 6th District and that he does not know what the future holds for him.

"On a plane on the way home the other day someone said to me, 'I hear the question asked me, is Kennedy running for Senate?' and this person replied, 'I don't know, but if he is, I'm for him.' And my reply to him was to say, 'I don't know if I'm running for Senate but if I am, I'm for me.'"

But before Kennedy could embark on a Senate campaign, if that's his plan, he'll first concentrate on getting re-elected next year in his relatively new congressional district.

The House of Representatives editor at the Cook Political Report, Amy Walter, says having unseated an incumbent and survived a vicious re-election campaign, Kennedy is on relatively solid ground.

"He is still known as being somewhat of a -- I don't know if it's a giant-killer, but someone who came in as an unexpected freshmen member of Congress," Walter says. "Thanks to redistricting and a good 2002 campaign, he has pretty much solidified himself in his congressional district, and he can decide what wants to do from there."

Kennedy says he's optimistic he'll have a winning message next fall. He's predicting Republicans will have a positive story to tell voters, not only about the economy, but also about national security and legislative accomplishments such as the Medicare overhaul, with its prescription drug coverage for seniors.

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