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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. brought his longshot 2024 presidential campaign to Los Angeles on Friday, Sept. 15, seeking support from California’s massive base of Latino voters keen for solutions to the nation’s immigration woes but amid a wary eye from many in his own party – Democrats – who say his policy vision aligns more with the harshest critics of the Biden administration.

On one hand, the event — pegged on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month and less than two miles from the site where his father, Robert F. Kennedy, was killed nearly 60 years ago while running for president  — had the markings of the kind of support Kennedy Jr.’s uncle, John, the late president, or his father, might have wanted.

A mariachi group and folklórico dancers opened the campaign stop at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles, where more than 300 people were gathered to hear Kennedy Jr. speak.

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On one level, the scene conjured up a history of decades-old alliances between the Kennedy family and Latinos, forged in the struggle for farmworker rights. On the other, this was a Kennedy campaign descending on a solidly blue state with a message often bucking his own party and the president who leads it.

On immigration, Kennedy Jr. echoes many conservatives’ perspectives on what is seen as a “border crisis,” in which “ruthless criminal cartels” have made drugs and human smuggling what he says is a multibillion-dollar business, according to his website. He blames fellow Democrat and his opponent, Biden, and current border enforcement rules for escalating the situation.

“We need wide walls, but also we need wide gates,” Kennedy Jr. said on Friday. “Mexican drug cartels are running our U.S. immigration system now… we need to work with Mexico instead of alienating them.”

It’s a message that resonates with many who lean to the right on the issue. But he tempered the rhetoric with what he said is his “humanitarian” approach, compared to proposed border policies he sees as grounded in xenophobia and bigotry.

“What I’m going to do as president, I’m going to secure the border,” he said in remarks, just after a showing of “Midnight at the Border,” a documentary on Kennedy Jr.’s visit to the Arizona-California border with Mexico. “And I’m going to make an easier, faster, simplified path to citizenship for people who are here illegally.”

He said that appointing “more efficient” asylum court judges are needed to adjudicate cases at the border “on the day that immigrants show up, before they gain access to our country.”

Kennedy Jr.’s candidacy has definitely caught the attention of those outside the Democratic Party, who find strains of his politics attractive.

Once known for his work as an environmental lawyer, Kennedy Jr., 69, rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic because of an ardent opposition to vaccines. While he has pushed back on the “anti-vax” label, an AP investigation in 2021 reported that he had linked up with anti-democratic figures and other groups over the issue.

Kennedy Jr.’s speeches on the campaign trail have pushed forward a kind of dual political persona: a candidate in the mold of a true Democratic tradition — such as his father and uncle, but also a track record of GOP support for his views on vaccines, immigration and other issues. Even major Republican donors and PACs have donated to help bankroll Kennedy Jr.’s bid for the White House.

Ultimately, underpinning his stance on the Biden administration is what, when launching his campaign in April, Kennedy Jr. called his mission: “to end the corrupt merger of state and corporate power that is threatening now to impose a new kind of corporate feudalism in our country.”

Both immigration advocates and Latino community leaders — including former Border Patrol Chief Chris Clem, and Catholic Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez — were present to support Kennedy Jr.

Mendez, the founder of Churches for Action, gave an invocation before Kennedy Jr. took the stage.“We’re living in some crazy times; we need good leadership in the White House,” the bishop prayed. “We must commit to bringing law and order, restore justice for victims.”

Retired news anchor Bob Jimenez, one of the event emcees, honored the Hispanic Heritage Month occasion. “Heritage means we are passing on who we are to the next generation of Latinos,” Jimenez said. “What we pass on is our strength to keep democracy strong.”

Political pundits and Latino leaders believe Kennedy Jr.’s campaigning in L.A. seems to be part of a strategy to get more Latino voters, who make up the second-largest voting bloc in the U.S., on his side.

“If he was going to kick off Latino Heritage Month, it would make sense for him to do it at home in a city that’s almost half Latino. But it’s also kind of ironic,” said Jaime Regalado, an emeritus professor of political science at Cal State Los Angeles, pointing out the “love affair and fascination of Latino communities with the Kennedy family,” going all the way back to John F. Kennedy’s presidential run.

Regalado noted the Kennedy brothers’ efforts to galvanize the Latino vote: Viva Kennedy clubs became big in the southwest, across California. Latino communities were drawn to JFK’s Catholic background, charisma and — at the time — more progressive policies, even in then-mostly-Republican California. It was an “anomaly” at the time, Regalado said.

There was a notable “shift in the (Kennedys’) political makeup,” from moderate to more liberal and progressive Democrats, Regalado said. He recalled how both Robert Kennedy Sr. and U.S. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy were considered by some to be “champions of workers” and “those who have been victimized by society, Latinos among them.”

But, with flashy campaign events in L.A., Kennedy Jr. is “courting” the Latino vote, Regalado said. “I think he feels it would aid the wind blowing in his back.”

The fervor of the previous “Viva Kennedy” era, however, is not there.

“The irony is that not only is (Robert Kennedy Jr.) still a Kennedy in L.A., but he’s a very different kind of Kennedy in L.A. — one basking in the support of some disgruntled Democratic voters who are still charmed by the Kennedy name, no matter the politics,” Regalado continued. “But on the Republican side, you’re getting a kind of champion of some of the culture wars.”

Still, an anti-establishment strain is attracting many who see government regulation, pandemic-era government public health directives and general political gridlock as tiring.

Kennedy Jr.’s L.A. visit Friday drew both supporters and open-minded Latino voters, including Ricardo Beas, an independent who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 12.

“We’re in the restaurant business and that’s why I want to be aware if (Kennedy Jr.) is the right candidate. I’m interested in his small business policy,” he said. “I want less regulations.”

Retired veteran Steve Futterman, a regular volunteer and donor, this is his third Kennedy Jr. campaign event.

The 67-year-old said he tends to be “more conservative” on certain issues, and is not a Democrat.

“I like his anti-war stances and protection of the First Amendment… he’s the only one that could speak rationally and has an actual firm policy decisions, unlike any other candidate that I’ve ever seen,” Futterman said. “I trust him in that even though I might disagree with him, he’s willing to listen.”

Noting the pro-life views of many Latino Catholics, Kennedy Jr. said Friday he believes “every abortion is a tragedy … I’ve fought my entire life for medical freedom… we should not have bureaucrats making that decision.”

The anti-establishment strains in Kennedy’s Jr. vision — from his Biden critiques to his vaccination stances — is not lost on Mimi Robson, immediate past chair of the Libertarian Party of California.

Kennedy Jr.’s policy vision resonates with some Libertarians, who strongly opposed government intervention in personal freedoms and business.

“I like a lot of what he has to say on these issues,” Robson said, noting Kennedy Jr.’s recent appearance at FreedomFest, a Libertarian conference. “I do think it resonates with people. He brings good discussion points. A different perspective than what other Democrats bring. I think that’s a positive.”

“I know libertarians who find his message intriguing,” she said. “There’s definitely an audience here for what he has to say.”

Richard Sherman, past chair of the Los Angeles County GOP, said that Kennedy Jr. stands out in a solidly blue California precisely because he says “what many Democrats won’t.”

“I think Kennedy appeals to some Republicans because he’s not afraid to say what he thinks,” Sherman said, adding he’s among the few Democratic candidates actually challenging Biden.

He added that though his beliefs are somewhat “paradoxical” — there’s a certain “Trump-ism going on with Kennedy… it’s ironic that you can even compare the two because they are so different.”

But while there are pockets of support for Kennedy Jr., some Latino community leaders were wary of Kennedy Jr. and others promising stronger immigration policies.

Jose Barrera, vice president for the Far West for the League of United Latin American Citizens, is among them.

He said that Latino voters “are paying attention to (candidates) who propose real solutions for immigration reform.”

“With the recent DACA ruling, the Latino electorate is gearing up to put pressure on the candidates to fix our broken systems. If Kennedy is looking to come to L.A. unprepared to speak on the tough issues we’re facing, he’s certainly going to have a rough time in the primaries,” Barrera said.

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