Anyone who has taken a stroll down Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall in recent months has likely noticed what may be considered a shocking amount of support for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the more prominent heirs to one of America’s more prominent political dynasties.
The controversial figure is running an independent campaign for the White House, and as a November rematch between President Biden and former President Donald Trump appears inevitable, Kennedy is trying to convince Virginians they have a third, and viable, option.
Charlottesville is his base camp for scaling that mountain.
Kennedy has set up his Virginia campaign headquarters in what was once the newsroom of C-ville Weekly, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper, where the windows are lined with posters and yard signs, stacks of flyers sit atop a small table by the front door, and curious pedestrians peer through the glass and occasionally take some of the literature that outlines Kennedy’s platform.
“Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential plan for the advancement of Black America,” reads one.
“Make a contribution for a chance to meet RFK Jr.,” reads another.
At the top of one is a photo of Kennedy in a jacket and tie. “We will end the forever wars, clean up government, increase wealth for all, and tell Americans the truth,” the flyer reads.
Telling “the truth” has made Kennedy a popular figure in one corner of America, and a pariah in another. While his campaign wants to focus on other parts of Kennedy’s platform, he is best known for his staunch criticism of vaccines, more recently the COVID vaccine, with many labeling him an “anti-vaxxer” for his views.
The storefront on East Main Street – owned by East Main Investments LLC – is prime real estate for a campaign trying to convince voters to support Kennedy, the son of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, whose assassinations in the 1960s left a permanent scar on American history.
“I saw this and was thinking, ‘Man, the Downtown Mall would be great because this is a billboard basically,’” Jason Amatucci, the campaign’s Virginia field director, told The Daily Progress. “Everybody sees it, and people stop by.”
Amatucci is a Charlottesville local. Before studying political science and anthropology at the University of Georgia, he attended Albemarle High School. He returned to the area in 2010 after graduating college, and at one point lived in an apartment above the Kilwin’s ice cream shop directly across from Kennedy HQ now.
“It made sense for me to have an office that I could easily commute to, but also it made sense because he has his home base here in Virginia with the school,” Amatucci said, referring to Kennedy’s time at the University of Virginia School of Law.
The younger Kennedy is not the only UVa alumni in his family: his father and uncle Ted, the late senator from Massachusetts, also attended.
In addition, Amatucci noted that Charlottesville is centrally located in the commonwealth, allowing the candidate to easily travel to other parts of Virginia to stump and speak. (Coincidentally, this was former President Thomas Jefferson’s rationale behind building UVa in the city — that and its proximity to his Albemarle County estate Monticello.)
Part of the campaign’s work in Charlottesville includes chatting with passersby, trying to teach them more about Kennedy and his priorities for the country. With a Main Street storefront, grabbing the attention of pedestrians is easy enough. And while some are receptive, others view the office with some disdain.
“A few people have been triggered just by seeing it. His candidacy triggers some folks,” Amatucci said. “Some folks say that he’s crazy, and then you ask them why and they can’t really give anything good.”
The campaign attributes any negative perception voters have about Kennedy to media coverage, which it feels is slanted and unfair. Outlets regularly deem him an “anti-vaxxer,” a term his campaign rejects, arguing instead that Kennedy is simply for “vaccine safety” and is not proposing to ban vaccines or prohibit others from taking them.
Kennedy’s campaign has struggled to untether him from the “anti-vax” label, in part because of comments the candidate himself has made. In July, he told the Lex Fridman podcast that, “There’s no vaccine that is safe and effective.” He has also promoted a theory that vaccines can cause autism.
“The scientific research has been done and the results are clear — vaccines do not cause autism,” Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, said in a statement about Kennedy’s comments. “Some people may choose not to believe the facts, but perpetuating a myth from the very highest levels poses a dangerous threat to public health.”
Most Americans are supportive of vaccines and vaccination; more than 80% of Americans have had at least one dose of the COVID vaccine.
“He’s outspoken about things, and he has become a figurehead for medical freedom. So that is definitely one of the platforms of his campaign. It’s not anti-vax. It’s medical freedom,” Amatucci said.
Members of Kennedy’s own family has disavowed his campaign.
“Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment. … We denounce his candidacy and believe it to be perilous for our country,” says a statement released in October by four of Kennedy’s siblings: former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II of Massachusetts, Rory Kennedy and Kerry Kennedy.
The candidate later told Fox News that no family always sees eye to eye on the issues.
“I love my family,” Kennedy said. “Every family has disputes. I’ve got a lot of family members who are supporting me. There’s a lot of members of my family who are working for the Biden administration and they have their own opinions about issues.”
While some reject Kennedy’s message and his candidacy, a sizable bloc embraces both.
A Quinnipiac poll conducted last fall found that Kennedy received 22% of support in a three-way contest between him, Trump and Biden. A Marist poll had similar results, with Kennedy winning 16% of the vote.
The campaign is fully convinced it can pull off a true upset in November. It says with high unfavourability ratings for both Trump and Biden, and with a general displeasure with the current state of the country, voters are looking for something new. The media, Amatucci said, focuses on his vaccine opinions to outright dismiss the candidate.
“But there’s so many positives. He wants to end the wars, he wants to bring down inflation, he wants to bring back the American dream, he wants to make housing affordable,” Amatucci said.
The campaign has hundreds of volunteers throughout Virginia, 25 of whom are based in Charlottesville. They occasionally visit the office for meetings and training sessions. Amatucci said Philip Hamilton, a former Republican candidate for state Senate who lost to longtime state senator and Democrat Creigh Deeds in November, previously attended an office potluck.
The Daily Progress could not reach Hamilton for comment.
On some days, volunteers stand outside the office handing out literature, shirts and other campaign merchandise as they try to gather signatures for Kennedy to get on the ballot. The campaign will need 750 signatures from voters in each of the commonwealth’s congressional districts to reach that goal. The deadline is August, and Amatucci is confident the campaign will meet the mark.
“It’s not a question of if but when,” he said.
The candidate will be in Charlottesville later this month. He plans to attend a private fundraiser on Jan. 26 at Farmington Country Club just outside the city, and Amatucci said Kennedy will visit UVa Law School earlier that day. Next Thursday, volunteers will be meeting at the Charlottesville office for another potluck. There are already dozens of campaign events scheduled across the commonwealth through October.
It is all part of the campaign’s ongoing effort not just to get Kennedy on the ballot, but to make history.
“I think RFK Jr. has one of the best chances ever of an independent candidate to win the presidency at this point. We have a majority of people saying they don’t want another Trump-Biden matchup,” Amatucci said. “So you have a perfect storm for another candidate to come in.”
Whether Kennedy can overcome the “anti-vax” and “conspiracy theorist” labels in Virginia is still undecided. But if he does, Charlottesville’s campaign office will be part of the reason why.