The new ambassador to Ireland, James Kenny, traces his family’s roots to County Mayo. But the red-haired partner in Chicago’s Kenny Construction Co. is not one to spend time at Mayo Association dances or Irish-American events in general.
Kenny’s modern-day credentials as a dependable fundraiser for Republican politicians, including President Bush and his father, appear to have weighed in his favor as Bush sought a new ambassador to Ireland. Kenny even gave $5,000 to Bush’s Florida recount effort.
“He was very close to Gov. Edgar and President Bush,” said former Republican Secretary of State Greg Baise, now head of the Illinois Manufacturing Association. “He was always at the top of any list when putting together a finance committee.”
At his sweating-in in October, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell looked at Kenny, his auburn-haired wife, Margaret, and his red-haired brood, Colleen, 21, Courtney, 18, Casey, 13, and Kathleen, 8, and said, “Did we not get the Kenny family from central casting or what?”
Kenny said he was thrilled to be taking over as Ambasssador as Ireland prepares to assume the presidency of the European Union in January. “I feel this is my time to serve my country,” he said.
Interviews with leaders of Irish-American organizations in Chicago found just about none have ever met him.
Kenny is known to Republican leaders around the state as a dependable fundraiser and as one whose name has been mentioned repeatedly over the years as a candidate for elective office, though he has never run.
Former Illinois Govenor Jim Edgar calls him a great problem-solver: “When he worked on fundraising and there were issues going on, he tried to get people together to work things out. He’s somebody who can facilitate when an ambassador gets called with some problem.”
Jim Houlihan, the Democratic Cook County Assessor, is this year’s Chair of the Irish Fellowship Club of Chicago, a social group, and about the only leader of an Irish-American group who could speak authoritatively about Kenny.
“He’ll be a great ambassador,” Houlihan said. “He has the right civic and business and personal characteristics. People automatically focus on the fundraising for the President. But he’s been active on school issues, a lot of civic and charitable activities in Chicago. I wouldn’t call him an Irish activist, in part because he’s been so involved in the community.”
Kenny has worked closely with the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese’s “big shoulders” fund, raising money for scholarships for underprivileged youth to attend Catholic schools.
Houlihan talked to Kenny about his trip to Ireland in 1998, spending the day with Eddie McGrady, an elected member of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labor Party as they watched the votes on the peace process being counted. Kenny expressed a keen interest, Houlihan said.
“I think he’s been boning up on Ireland,” Edgar added.
Kenny’s name gets mentioned just about every time an elected official announces they’re not running again: in 1994 for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Dick Durbin; in 1999 for the congressional seat now held by Mark Kirk; and in 1999 to head the state Republican Party.
Kenny is the third generation running the family business started by his grandfather John Kenny in 1927. John Kenny dug ditches for utilitites. The company he founded now digs massive underground tunnels such as Chicago’s “deep tunnel” system. It has been responsible for the clean-up of Boston Harbor, rebuilding the New Orleans Airport and other projects around the country. It gets credit or blame for the new modern Soldier Field bursting out of the seams of the old historic Soldier Field where the Chicago Bears play.
Jim Kenny remembers as a child standing with Mayor Richard J. Daley and other dignitaries atop his family’s newly completed “Chicago Skyway” that now carries commuters high over the Calumet River and Chicago’s Southeast Side to Indiana.
Can he help build that bridge from Dublin to Belfast that successive U.S. administrations have tried for years? That will mostly be the responsibility of the U.S. Ambassador to Britain and the special envoy to Northern Ireland, Kenny said.
Those who know Kenny in Chicago say he has the right temperament to help with that conflict if called upon. Kenny’s brothers run the business end of the company. He’s the “relationship guy” good at working with people.
“He’s a very approachable and immediately likable person who has some depth,” Houlihan said. “While we were on differerent political sides, he was always willing to get a different set of perspectives.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden joked, “My grandfather always warned me about Irish-Americans who become rich and turn Republican,” then sent the committee’s endorsement of Kenny to the full Senate. Senator Edward Kennedy also supported Kenny’s nomination, though he and other senators had complained about the delay in naming a replacement for Massachusetts businessman and Republican fundraiser Richard Egan, who left the post last year.
Illinois Republicans hope that adding “ambassador” to Kenny’s resume will help him run for office when he returns.
“I don’t think his experience with being Ambassodor to Ireland will hurt Republicans in Illinois down the road,” Baise said. ♦