BY Kerry Eleveld
August 26 2009 5:15 AM ET
Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, the last remaining Kennedy brother and a tireless champion for LGBT rights, died early Wednesday morning after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. He was 77.
The Kennedy family released a statement announcing that he died at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass.
"We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever," the statement said. "We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it's hard to imagine any of them without him."
Kennedy, who became known as "the liberal lion of the Senate" over the 47 years he served in the chamber, scored a 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign, advocating for historic pieces of pro-LGBT legislation and making critical votes.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1990, he introduced what became known as the Ryan White CARE Act, which provided crucial medical treatment and prescription drugs to those who could not afford it. In 1996, Kennedy was one of only 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage of Act that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
During the unsuccessful attempt by conservatives to pass the 2004 Federal Marriage Amendment constitutionally banning same-sex marriage, Kennedy said from the Senate floor, "We all know what this issue is about. It's not about how to protect the sanctity of marriage, or how to deal with activist judges. It's about politics and an attempt to drive a wedge between one group of citizens and the rest of the country, solely for partisan advantage ... The Constitution has never been used as a tool to entrench currently popular views at the expense of an unpopular minority – and it should not be used that way now."
Among his slate of progressive legislative sponsorships, Kennedy pushed such bills as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
In 2007, he introduced the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, which passed as an amendment to the Defense Department reauthorization bill but was eventually dropped from the legislation after President George W. Bush threatened to veto it. Kennedy reintroduced the measure this year with 45 cosponsors and again it was attached as an amendment to the 2010 defense appropriations legislation, which must be reconciled with the House version of the bill before being sent to President Obama's desk.
Kennedy also introduced ENDA in 2007 after the House legislation went through a tumultuous journey that ultimately stripped it of protections for transgender individuals. This year, he and lead senate sponsors Jeff Merkeley, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins, reintroduced the legislation, which became the first transgender-inclusive bill in the senate's history.
"We had no greater hero in Congress," said David Smith, vice president of programs for HRC who also worked for Kennedy as communications director for a little over a year. "His loss is stunning; he's not replaceable."
A man who had experienced great tragedy himself, Kennedy was also known for being uniquely compassionate.
Smith recalled a particularly personal moment when he and his partner married in Spain two years ago and Smith's whole family, including his father, mother, and brother attended the wedding. Five days after the ceremony, Smith's father suffered a massive stroke and died.
"When I came back, I had his ashes with me -- it was very very emotional," recalled Smith. "When the plane landed, my cell phone rang and it was Senator Kennedy. He had heard what had happened and he wanted to express his sadness. He just said, 'We love you and support you.' It was just the most touching thing that the first person to call me was him."
One of the Democratic Party's elder statesmen, Senator Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962 and called the latest round of debate in Congress to reform health care "the cause of my life." He campaigned for President Obama during the 2008 election cycle, where he promised, "we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American ... will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not just a privilege." In July, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, chaired by Kennedy and under the stewardship of Senator Christopher Dodd, passed health care legislation that Kennedy had helped to write.
Kennedy famously made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980 but lost to then-president Jimmy Carter. Many credited his loss to the 1969 accident at Chappaquiddick Island in which the senator drove his car off a bridge, causing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne to drown. Accepting defeat that summer at the Democratic National Convention, Kennedy orated some of his most revered words: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on. The cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
The senator received the nation's highest civilian honor in July, when President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom alongside out tennis icon Billie Jean King and slain gay politician Harvey Milk.
Kennedy, the youngest sibling of nine in the Kennedy family, was elected as Massachusetts' junior senator at a time when the family led the momentum of progressive change in the 1960s. His brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, remained political icons even after their untimely deaths by assassination in 1963 and 1968, respectively. The eldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, died during a World War II bombing mission in 1944. One of his sisters Kathleen Kennedy died in a plane crash in 1948. Two other sisters have also died in the past few years, Patricia Lawford Kennedy in 2006, and Rosemary Kennedy in 2005. Most recently, on August 11, his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a champion for disabled people and founder of the Special Olympics died at 88.
Doctors diagnosed Kennedy with a malignant glioma, after he suffered a seizure in May 2008. He underwent a partial tumor removal, as well as proton-beam radiation, and chemotherapy.
Last week, Kennedy wrote a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, state senate president Therese Murray, and state house speaker Robert DeLeo about speedily finding a replacement for his senate seat.
The senator is survived by his wife Vicki; sister Jean Kennedy Smith; sons Edward Kennedy Jr. and U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island; his daughter Kara Kennedy Allen; step children Curran Raclin and Curran Raclin, and four grandchildren.