Volume 16 • Issue 38 | February 20 - 26, 2004

Aiming to be the ‘First Sister’ from Downtown

By Ed Gold

She’d love to be First Sister.

Peggy Kerry leaves her office at the U.N. and heads back to Greenwich Village, back to her modest apartment on Barrow St., to feed her 5-year-old daughter, Iris. Her younger brother, John, is on a political roll, on the verge of capturing the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency.

Balancing her work, Village responsibilities and the campaign, the older sibling, politically experienced, says what her brother says: “I’m cautiously optimistic,” as the brass ring is within reach.

In her own way, she has been helping the campaign since Senator Kerry told “Meet the Press” two years ago that he would seek the presidency.

“We actually got involved in politics when I was a fifth grader and John a third grader,” she said, recalling their first presidential campaign activity 50 years ago. “We sold Stevenson buttons.”

Peggy, John and two siblings, Diane and Cameron — he’s been very active in the campaign — moved about in their youth since dad was in the foreign service.

Peggy went to Smith, John to Yale, where he was valedictorian, and where some of his classmates thought he might one day seek the presidency.

Peggy moved to the Village in late 1967 and has been here ever since. She has worked in the Manhattan District attorney’s office in Lower Manhattan and the national and New York A.C.L.U., lobbied for the Community Service Society and served as consultant for Planned Parenthood. She is now N.G.O. (nongovernmental organization) liaison at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. — and she makes clear that this prevents her from doing any political fundraising.

She lives on Barrow with her husband, George Kaler, an associate dean for administration at the CUNY Medical Center, and their daughter Iris, who was born in China and adopted at age 2.

She says it’s amusing that, “I’m Catholic, but also half-Jewish since both my grandfathers were Jewish.”

Peggy comes to her brother’s campaign with a lot of political experience under her belt.

“I joined Village Independent Democrats in 1968” — Nixon versus Humphrey — “and stayed for more than 10 years. I left when the membership spent all its time fighting about Ed Koch and not dealing with any other issues,” she recalls. V.I.D. went against Koch and backed Mario Cuomo in the 1982 gubernatorial race — a decision that led to the formation of a splinter club, Village Reform Democratic Club.

Peggy Kerry also served as Democratic state committeewoman for seven years, prior to taking the U.N. job.

She was caught up in the peace movement during the Vietnam War, where brother John left his mark. In 1970, she went to work for the Vietnam Moratorium and its plans for a large peace rally. John, back from the war, was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “John was not yet fully involved in the peace effort, but he agreed to fly Adam Walinsky, who had been a key speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy, around the state in support of the Moratorium,” she recalls.

A short time later John joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the following year he testified against the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In 1972, he got the political bug and ran for Congress — and lost. Peggy reminisces with some irony that “Richard Nixon had swamped George McGovern for the presidency that year but had lost Massachusetts by 10 points, while Kerry had lost in his congressional race by 10 points.”

After going to law school, Kerry ran successfully for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by Michael Dukakis, who lost the presidency to George H.W. Bush in 1988. “John won’t make the mistake that Dukakis made. You can be sure he’ll respond vigorously to every attack from the Republicans,” Peggy asserts.

In 1984, Kerry won a U.S. Senate seat and has held it ever since. In 2000, Peggy recalls, her brother briefly flirted with the idea of running for president, and in fact was on Al Gore’s shortlist for vice president.

“You know,” Peggy says, “every senator thinks he should be president. In John’s senate class of ’84, all the Democrats have sought the presidency but no one has won. The last senator to make it was J.F.K. My brother, whose full name is John Forbes Kerry, has the same initials.”

Peggy has worked in the campaign as much as possible, talking up his candidacy among friends even during the dark days, working with local Democratic clubs, and providing direct assistance in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

She has a few pointed views about the campaign:

“The press kept calling John aloof, but they just didn’t understand him,” she says. “They were terrible. No one who really knows him would consider him aloof.”

How did he turn his campaign around?

After being the favorite, she suggests he was stung by the great Internet effort by Howard Dean. “But he went to Iowa and got a strong feeling they were listening to him,” she recalls. “So he made a large investment in that state, and it turned out he was right, since he’s been winning ever since. Bringing in the veterans, his combat buddies, also proved to be highly successful.”

She doesn’t like hearing criticism of her brother calling Dean’s recent attacks “nothing but outrageous.” John Edwards, who has resisted knocking any of the Democrats, doesn’t bother her, “but he ought to come around soon,” meaning he should throw in the towel.

She has a treasured memento from the primary season. She takes from her purse a campaign button that reads: “John Kerry’s Sister.”


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