Born in Inwood and raised up in Croton-on-Hudson, Kennedy travelled over an hour each way to get to and from Regis. “I had to promise my parents I wouldn’t just get off Metro North at 125th Street, even though it would save me time,” Kennedy said. “In those days, it was too dangerous.” He recalls that one of his most significant Regis experiences was participating in the Hearn. He initially showed up to a Hearn meeting out of curiosity, as his mother’s maiden name is Hearne with an “e”. “I was just terrible at first, but what kept me going was that I was brought up in a very strict environment where what I said didn’t matter much, but all of a sudden—doing speech and debate—it meant the difference between winning and losing.”
(Pictured: Dave with an award he won in March 2016 in an inter-office physical fitness competition, the first such award in his life.)
As a senior, Kennedy participated in two Christian Service projects. First, he taught eighth grade math at Nativity Mission School on the Lower East Side. Then, during his third trimester, he worked full-time at the Coalition for the Homeless, beginning a life-long commitment to fair housing work. At the time, the Coalition’s offices were on Chambers Street, across the street from where he now works. “I can stand at my window and look into my old office location from 1989,” he said.
After Regis, Kennedy attended Harvard College and Yale Law School, where he continued policy and legal work related to housing and poverty, particularly throughout the summer months. During one law school summer he worked as an intern in the Civil Division in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. “I knew about the office because I closely followed the insider trading cases in the late 1980s—my dad lost his job on the support staff at one of the big investment banking firms when it went bankrupt as a result of that criminal activity. I learned a lot about how Assistant U.S. Attorneys can make a positive contribution to promoting civil rights, environmental protection, and protecting the public from fraud.” After clerking for two federal judges, Kennedy returned to the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2000 and has been Chief and Co-Chief of the Civil Rights Unit since 2007.
Kennedy’s responsibilities include litigating and supervising cases that enforce various civil rights statutes. “The biggest part of the Civil Rights Unit’s work is enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he noted. “I’ve sued the Apollo Theater, nine major Broadway theaters, and negotiated with the new Yankee Stadium to ensure that these facilities have wheelchair seating and accessible bathrooms.” In the area of fair housing, Kennedy has brought or supervised lawsuits attacking discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and/or disability in apartment rentals and mortgage lending. In the area of voting rights, he has sued Westchester County to require Spanish language assistance at the polls, and the Village of Port Chester to change an election system that was, according to a court ruling, discriminating against Hispanics. Kennedy also enforces statutes against excessive force by police or corrections officers. “It’s the best kind of job—it uses the skills that I started to develop at Regis, it is constantly exciting and challenging intellectually, and it accomplishes a lot of good in the world. There is a strong vein of social justice and activism in Catholicism that motivates me, and it is particularly exciting to see that vision embodied in Pope Francis.”
“My work today is the direct result of the ideals of social justice conveyed through a Jesuit education,” Kennedy added. “The college essay I wrote when I was a senior at Regis was about the idea of ‘not in my backyard,’ and how communities like the one I grew up in can sometimes resist integration. That essay was inspired by reading J. Anthony Lukas’s book Common Ground in Mr. DiMichele’s Contemporary Social and Political Issues class. Twenty-seven years later, one of my biggest cases is a fair housing suit against Westchester County for taking federal money to promote integration and affordable housing, then failing to actually do it.”
When not working, Kennedy enjoys spending time with his wife and sons. He is writing a novel about law and politics during the Gilded Age, in which the Foundress, the daughter of a prominent Senator, has a brief cameo. He is also a self-described beer expert, and frequents the Bronx Ale House, “purely because one of the owners is a Regian, of course”.
Looking back on the path he took, Kennedy says he is struck by how transformative his Regis experience was. “I came to Regis with an appreciation for community service; my mom created the Croton Caring Committee in 1980 to serve the needs of the homebound, elderly, and poor in Croton by driving folks to their appointments, bringing them food, or even just visiting. Regis really helped me channel that inspiration into work that best suited my temperament and abilities.”
Kennedy continues to feel a special obligation to serve because of his family’s history: “My mom was an immigrant from County Wexford, and my dad’s parents immigrated from Donegal. Regis was founded to help guys like me give back to the country that gave them such amazing opportunities. How can I not be a ‘man for others’ when so many men and women gave so much to me?”