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In Patrick Kennedy Land, Mood Is Forgiving

Times Staff Writer

On Smith Hill, just around the corner from Providence College, the annual pancake breakfast at St. Anthony Roman Catholic Church is a cherished May ritual.

Usually, hearty helpings of parish gossip are served up alongside scrambled eggs and sausages. On Saturday, the event buzzed with just one topic of conversation: Patrick Kennedy.

“No one was talking of anything else,” said 80-year-old Lou Sharelo, who arrived at 5:30 a.m. to set up tables for hundreds of guests.

Kennedy, who lived in the area as a student at Providence College, entered a rehab program Friday. The 38-year-old Democratic congressman acknowledged he suffered from depression and had abused alcohol and prescription drugs for years. He also disclosed that he had secretly sought treatment five months ago at the same facility, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

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The admissions followed a car crash in which Kennedy drove into a concrete barrier in Washington shortly before 3 a.m. Thursday.

In a tiny state with just two congressional districts, Kennedy is a friendly, familiar presence. Voters have watched him mature from an earnest undergraduate with a famous surname to a hard-working congressman. Many say they feel a personal connection to him.

“I see him all the time,” said Frank McCaloum, a 73-year-old retired truck driver. “He talks to me like I know him, like I’m a relative.”

On Saturday, there were calls on conservative talk shows for Kennedy’s resignation, but in his former neighborhood -- indeed, all around Rhode Island’s heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District -- the mood was largely one of forgiveness.

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Far from a career-killer, Kennedy’s travails were seen by many voters in Providence as a bump in the road.

The six-term congressman looks after the elderly, defends the rights of veterans and delivers federal funding for his adopted home state, his constituents said Saturday. He visits the district nearly every weekend, they said, often sharing spaghetti suppers at senior citizens’ centers.

“He did great,” Sharelo said. “Well, he did great until he got himself in trouble.”

Working in her garden nearby, retired nurse Janette Redmond said she felt sorry for the man she had voted for since he first won a seat in the state House of Representatives at age 20. “I feel bad for him,” said Redmond, 81. “He seems like a nice kid. But there is something wrong with him. He needs help, and it sounds like he will get it.”

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At Scialo Bros. Bakery on Federal Hill, saleswoman Sue Fecteau stood behind a glass counter filled with cakes and cannoli and said she was not surprised to hear Kennedy admit to an addiction. “But I take no great delight in saying that,” she said. “I think he is a very hard-working young man. He has done a lot. Yes, the Kennedy name is kind of magic.”

She said that did not negate the seriousness of his current problems, but “you still remember the good.”

Such sentiment all but ensures Kennedy’s political survival, said Brown University political science professor Darrell West.

“He is very popular within the state,” said West, author of a biography of the congressman. “He is a pretty visible presence, and he has brought a lot of federal money back to the state. I do not think this will tarnish him.”

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Kennedy has had previous run-ins with substance abuse -- starting at prep school, when he underwent his first rehab treatment -- and with the law. In 2000, he was involved in an incident at Los Angeles International Airport in which he shoved a security guard. The same year, he was accused of trashing a yacht. Last month, he was at fault in a two-car accident in Portsmouth, R.I., a police report said.

Soaking up some sun on a Federal Hill bench, unemployed nightclub bouncer Dennis Del Santo did not join those expressing goodwill toward Kennedy.

“This time it could hurt him,” said Del Santo, 50. “Look how easy they let him off. He should have been arrested or at least alcohol-tested when he ran his car into that barrier. You better believe if it was you or me, they would have done that.”

Del Santo said he could not see himself voting for Kennedy. But until last week, the congressman had no opponent in the upcoming election. His last serious challenge was in 1994. Then, Kennedy relatives poured in to work the streets on his behalf, and he won handily.

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“People love him,” said Bill Tavares, proprietor of a drive-through newsstand in the working-class community of Pawtucket, where Kennedy’s office is located. “I don’t think he could ever lose here.”

“People accept the Kennedys,” he said. “Everyone knows they’re going to get in trouble -- and everyone knows they’ll get out of it.”

In writing about Kennedy on Saturday in the state’s largest newspaper, Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst seemed to capture much of the reaction to Kennedy’s situation.

“Rhode Islanders,” Bakst wrote, “wish him well.”

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