The scion of a New Jersey political dynasty looks to take on Washington

New Jersey State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., is challenging first-term Rep. Tom Malinowski in the state’s 7th congressional district

It would be unlikely to find a New Jersey voter over the age of 40 who hasn’t heard of the Kean family. Tom Kean, Jr., who has served as minority leader in the New Jersey State Senate since 2008, is part of the newest generation of one of the state’s oldest political dynasties.

His family’s legacy in public service extends as far back as the country’s founding, when Kean’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, John Kean, served in the Continental Congress.

And now, Kean is hoping to be the next in his family to hold a seat in the U.S. Congress.

In pursuing a life in politics, Kean is an outlier among his siblings, both of whom chose careers away from politics — his twin brother, Reed, is a realtor and his sister Alexandra is an educator. But Kean is used to being in the minority — it’s where, he told Jewish Insider, he has felt most able to find common ground with those with whom he disagrees and achieve tangible results.

The son of former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, grandson of former Rep. Robert Kean (R-NJ) and great-grandson of former Sen. Hamilton Fish Kean (R-NJ), the junior Kean is challenging first-term incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) for his seat representing New Jersey’s 7th congressional district. 

As part of the “blue wave” in 2018 that saw Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, Malinowski defeated five-term Republican Rep. Leonard Lance by four points. The district — one of 25 Republican-held House districts that Hillary Clinton won two years earlier in the 2016 presidential election — is considered “lean Democratic” by the Cook Political Report, and rated as a “toss-up” by Politico. A poll conducted in March by Basswood Research showed the two in a statistical tie. So far this cycle, Malinowski has outraised Kean two to one, according to the most recent FEC filings

In a recent sit-down interview with Jewish Insider at his campaign headquarters in Westfield, N.J., Kean said though his parents never directed him to seek public office, watching them giving back to their community had inspired him not just to enter public service after graduating from college, but also to work across the aisle to find common ground with Democratic legislators and seek solutions that benefited everyone. 

Kean said his parents didn’t raise their kids to seek public service. “They were always focused on giving back,” he said. “Whether it was in a volunteer capacity as a camp counselor, or as a volunteer firefighter, or whether it was working in a food bank, they always thought it’s very important to give back and help your neighbor.” 

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He first entered public service and politics, immediately after graduating from college, was serving as a special assistant at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the George H. W. Bush administration. When Bush lost his reelection bid, Kean remained in Washington, where he got a job, focusing on constituent service, in the office of the late Rep. Bob Franks (R-NJ). 

“In each step of the progression, growing up and that experience at the executive branch as well as in the congressional branch, I witnessed in real-time that you can have a huge positive impact on people’s lives by being in public service — by listening to people’s stories, by understanding where they came from,” Kean explained. “And what fascinated me was the ability to listen to people, find the common definitions, and therefore be able to find the solution in a way that helps people. Being able to do that, as a public servant, has been incredible.” 

After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2000, Kean was appointed to New Jersey’s General Assembly, the lower house of the state legislature, where he replaced Alan Augustine, who left office in March 2001 for health reasons. Kean was elected to a full term that fall. One of his early bills, which he pushed as a member of the legislature’s majority, extended voting hours on Election Day. Kean co-sponsored the legislation with Democrat Albio Sires, who now represents the state’s 8th congressional district. “I’ve made sure that the very first step, you always get the best possible solutions trying to find common ground to get things done,” Kean said. 

In early 2003, Kean was again tapped for a new role — this time in New Jersey’s upper chamber to represent the State Senate’s 21st district after a decision by State Sen. Richard Bagger to vacate the seat. The following year, he was elected to be the party’s minority whip, and has held leadership positions in the body ever since.. 

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Now, Kean says he wants to bring the model of bipartisanship to help constituents in New Jersey’s 7th congressional district. Malinowski, he suggested, is not in tune with the needs of the district. “[Malinowski] spent 25 years in Washington D.C. and I am sure that it has an impact on his thought process, on the way he approaches decisions, and that approach is one that’s much more Washington D.C.-focused than New Jersey-focused,” Kean said. 

Kean charges Malinowski is beholden to the Democratic Party’s leadership and priorities, and that it’s kept him from fighting for the needs of his constituents. “When you go down to Washington, D.C., you have to recognize that there are people on both sides of the aisle that can actually work together on the priorities of their district, and he just has not shown that,” Kean explained. 

Tom Kean
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, left, D-Teaneck, listens as Senate Republican leader Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., R- Westfield, addresses a Senate committee hearing proposals to reform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in Trenton, N.J.

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Malinowski maintained that he worked to deliver on his campaign promises and be present in the district — he noted that he has held more than 50 town halls since he took office — and is “focused on the needs” of his district. “I have not shied away from taking a clear stance on the big moral questions facing our country, especially democracy, which I was doing what I think my constituents required me to — to check misconduct by this president and protect what I consider to be our country’s foundational values,” he said.

If elected, Kean said he would immediately join the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of Democrats and Republicans who focus on finding bipartisan solutions to top policy issues, chaired by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Tom Reed (R-NY). “That’s the type of model you need to get down in Washington, DC, as an individual who can achieve things, work with both sides of the aisle, and understand that a handshake is important,” Kean said, noting that Malinowski chose not to follow his predecessor’s path and join the bipartisan group.  

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If victorious in November, Kean would be the first in his family to represent the 7th district in Congress, but not the first Kean to represent a New Jersey district. His grandfather Robert served ten terms in the House of Representatives representing New Jersey’s 12th district. 

In the late 1930s, Robert Kean became the first member of Congress to speak about the Holocaust on the House floor and in 1943 called for the U.S. to admit Jewish refugees. He was also an early advocate for U.S. recognition of Israel’s independence. Kean told JI that his grandfather was motivated to act because he felt a sense of duty to speak out on behalf of his constituents, many of whom were Jewish. 

Robert’s son, Bob Kean Sr., soon after taking office as governor of New Jersey in 1982, signed an executive order creating the New Jersey Advisory Council on Holocaust Education in memory of his late father. A year later, he was invited by the Israeli government to attend a special ceremony at Yad Vashem to mark the 40th anniversary of his father’s plea to rescue Jews from extermination by the Nazis. 

In October 1988, the younger Kean — then 20 years old — visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland to pay his respects to those perished in the Holocaust. At the time, Kean was studying in nearby Budapest, Hungary, and some friends were planning a trip to Poland. “Because I knew the things that my grandfather had done, and the things that my father had done, I said that if we’re going to Poland we have to go by Auschwitz,” Kean recalled. 

Two months later, Kean met up with his father, who was visiting the Soviet Union to meet with Jewish refuseniks he had symbolically adopted, among them Boris Klotz. Kean recalled that his father had been told by refuseniks that they wanted to immigrate to Israel out of fear that the KGB would try to kill them. 

In a phone interview with Jewish Insider, Kean Sr. explained that he used his position as an American politician to save refuseniks whose lives were at risk. Kean said former President Ronald Reagan had an understanding with Mikhail Gorbachev, then the president of the Soviet Union, that during meetings he would slip the Soviet leader a piece of paper with the names of prominent activists that should be allowed to flee to Israel. “I would give [Reagan] names to put on that piece of paper so those people would then be able to get to Israel,” the elder Kean revealed. 

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Kean told JI his visit to Auschwitz and his experience in Moscow stayed with him for his “entire approach to public service, especially my entire approach towards the State of Israel.” Kean first visited Israel in 2006 as part of a state delegation, and later traveled to Israel again in 2007 with The Aspen Institute. 

In the state legislature in 2012, Kean sponsored legislation denying public contracts to contractors that do business in Iran, and also backed a measure that would prohibit state pension and annuity funds from being invested in companies that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Last year, Kean co-led the effort, with Demorcratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, to deny state investments in Airbnb after the company announced it would not list Israeli homes located in the West Bank. After several months, Airbnb reversed its decision.

A supporter of the two-state solution and the Trump administration’s peace plan, Kean welcomed the recently signed Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, calling the agreements “a meaningful change” in how Israel is viewed by other countries in the region. 

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During the interview, Kean repeatedly sought to highlight and describe Malinowski’s background as a lifelong Washington insider, noting that the congressman previously served as a lobbyist for Human Rights Watch and briefly worked at the State Department under President Barack Obama. 

“You cannot have individuals that change their positions depending on the positions they hold. When he was in the Obama administration, he was a strong advocate for the Iran nuclear deal, and is still supportive. And when you look at issues related to Israel, he has not been where he needed to be,” Kean charged. 

Malinowski defended his work with the United Nations Human Rights Council in his role as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, to which he was confirmed in 2014. “I’m realistic about the U.N. It’s not as if strong American leadership alone would instantly cure the anti-Israel bias that exists in a lot of the U.N.’s voting bodies. But we were certainly in a much better position to fight against it when we were present and we are in no position to fight against it when we’re absent,” Malinowski told JI. “Our ability to defend Israel against unfair attacks is tangibly diminished by the administration’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council,” he added. 

The first-term incumbent explained that his transition from diplomat to politician was natural. “All the values that I fought for on behalf of my country as a diplomat are now being debated within our country, and I felt that the most useful thing I could do was to throw myself into that debate,” he said. 

Tom Kean speaking
N.J. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., R-Union addresses members of the Senate after they were sworn in for the new session Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008, in Trenton, N.J.

“I have a strong pro-Israel record in Congress, and as a representative of our country during my State Department days,” Malinowski maintained. 

Kean disagrees and argues that Malinowski has been less vocal on issues relating to Israel in recent years because the current U.S. has a friendlier relationship with the Israeli government. “I believe that your past is your future,” he said. “When an individual has positions, that all the way up until about a year ago was facing in one direction, and then only over the course of the last year in a different direction, I’m concerned that if there’s a new executive with a different policy focus then the current one in the executive branch, that he would go back to where his course was charted in the first instance.” 

Malinowski, who traveled to Israel during last summer’s August recess on a trip to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of AIPAC, contended that “the Democratic Party stands by Israel despite all the turmoil in America and all the turmoil in Israel. But at the same time, we still believe that a two-state solution is the best way for Israel to remain secure as a Jewish and democratic state.” 

“Any efforts to turn Israel into a partisan issue in my district are going to rebound against anybody who is seen as doing that,” Malinowski declared. 

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Earlier this month, Malinowski and Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA), who was defeated by a primary challenger and will wrap up his term in January, introduced a bipartisan resolution condemning the QAnon conspiracy theory, after Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has promoted QAnon ideas, won the Republican nomination in Georgia’s 14th congressional district in August. While several Republican leaders — including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — have condemned QAnon, many Republicans, including McCarthy, have declined to distance themselves from Greene, who also received the backing of President Donald Trump. 

Pointing to his record in speaking out against antisemitism as head of the Repulbican Senate delegation in New Jersey, Kean said that if elected he will be “absolutely” be forceful in speaking out against members of his own caucus who engage in and support hateful rhetoric and activities. “I think Kevin McCarthy has been very strong against [defeated Rep.] Steve King (R-IA) when he deprived him of committee assignments, and King ultimately lost the primary,” Kean said of the controversial Iowa congressman. “And I think it’s important to stand up. I think that we need to have around the country a very strong conversation — in both parties — about the importance of getting rid of antisemitism, of making sure that people should understand we have a shared common future. And both parties need to do better job policing that and stepping up.” 

Kean attempted to shift the spotlight back onto Malinowski, suggesting that the Democratic Congressman had failed to speak out forcefully against antisemitism on the far-left. 

Malinowski told JI that lawmakers “have a responsibility to speak out when people on our side cross the line.” He insisted that while in the Democratic Party, those voices are “on the fringes — people without significant power and influence in the party,” in the Republican Party, “this nonsense isn’t just coming from their fringes, it’s coming from the very top. And they have a harder time standing up to them because taking a principled stand comes with a cost.” 

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Kean Sr., who delivered the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention in 1988, told JI he didn’t encourage any of his children to follow his path in politics, “but [Kean Jr.] chose it. He likes to do it, he likes helping people.” 

Both father and son support the Trump’s reelection bid, although the younger Kean says he doesn’t expect the president to campaign for him. 

“I agree with Trump on some things, I disagree with him on a number of things, and I think Tom will say the same thing that he will vote for him but he has some reservations,” Kean Sr. told JI. 

The elder Kean doesn’t have those same reservations about his son. He believes Congress is in need of leaders who are willing to compromise and work together to get things done. “[Tom Kean Jr.] can bring people together. He understands how to talk to people about his beliefs in a way that brings them in and not keeps them out,” Kean said of his son. “These problems we have are all created by people, and the only way we’re going to solve them is through people. You can’t solve them if you are going to yell at each other the way they yell at each other now.”

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