Sen. Ed Markey's Green New Deal 'Revolution' Is Winning. Can He?

The Massachusetts senator, facing two serious challengers, held a primary debate on the climate crisis in a bid to secure his status as the issue's leading champion.

EASTON, Mass. ― It’s a revolution either way. The question is whether Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey can keep it.

The Green New Deal’s elder statesman ostensibly came here Sunday night to defend his record on his signature issue in what was supposed to be a debate with his three primary opponents. But the only one who showed up, star labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, all but endorsed the fight Markey’s been waging for much of the past year, offering little contrast with the incumbent.

“This needs to be a revolution,” said Liss-Riordan, famous for suing ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft on behalf of underpaid drivers. “But this revolution hasn’t started yet.”

That was news to Markey and his supporters. The senator repeatedly cited Virginia Democrats’ historic victory last week running on a Green New Deal. And he brought people to back him up. More than two dozen marched through the cold, eerily silent campus at Stonehill College, a private Catholic liberal arts school roughly 45 minutes south of Boston, in support of an incumbent who’s transformed himself in 2019 as a climate revolutionary.

“We can break the back of the fossil fuel industry,” Markey said to an auditorium filled with campaign volunteers. “The time has arrived for this political revolution that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I have introduced into the political dynamic.”

It was hard to believe Markey is in any way an underdog in the race. Liss-Riordan, despite attracting a small group of advocates who sang the union hymn “Solidarity Forever” ahead of the debate, “likely won’t even be on the ballot,” said one Markey supporter. Markey’s other challenger, businessman Steve Pemberton, dropped out last month. But Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a rising star in Washington and heir to the state’s great political dynasty, seemed confident enough in the threat he posed to skip the debate altogether.

“This particular debate should be held in a frontline community most impacted by our country’s climate failures,” Emily Kaufman, a Kennedy spokesperson, said by email, adding that “a 2020 date will ensure better voter attention on this critical issue, rather than the middle of Veteran’s Day weekend.”

The incumbent bet big on the Green New Deal earlier this year, sponsoring a resolution that outlined the core tenets of an industrial plan to transform the federal government in ways unseen since Markey, 73, was in diapers. In doing so, he lent the credibility of his four-decade career in Congress to a movement led by his party’s insurgent left wing.

Now Markey is counting on the grassroots activists who propelled the Green New Deal into the political mainstream, many of them teenagers and 20-somethings, to help him fend off Kennedy’s message of a fresh face without serious policy distinction. So far, they’re behind him. On Sunday night, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, the newly elected socialist candidate to the Cambridge city council, endorsed Markey in an interview with HuffPost.

“He’s been the champion of the Green New Deal,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said in an interview in Cambridge. “You don’t have to be a member of ‘the squad’ or a new insurgent to fight for big, bold ideas. If you do, groups on the left are going to notice that.”

In September, Kennedy held a 14-point lead over Markey ― 42% to the incumbent’s 28% ― in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll that surveyed a head-to-head race between the two Democrats. But another 29% were undecided. The Kennedy name is beloved by Bay State voters, so much so that a fictional member of the clan received high favorability ratings in a 2011 poll testing a hypothetical run.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is facing his most formidable primary opponent, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.).
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is facing his most formidable primary opponent, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.).
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Besides cashing in on his name, Kennedy is pitching his candidacy as generational change. His early promotional materials make little mention of policy differences between himself and Markey. His campaign is quick to point out that Kennedy, too, signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, a promise to reject contributions from donors in the oil, gas and coal businesses, and joined Markey in sponsoring the House version of the Green New Deal resolution.

Against almost any other septuagenarian incumbent, Kennedy might have a compelling case. He has a fairly progressive record, including backing the Green New Deal, albeit after weeks of activists’ nudging. Markey’s hawkish record on foreign policy attracts criticism from the left, notably his votes to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and using military force in Syria in 2013. And Markey’s signature effort to curb climate-changing emissions, the 2009 cap-and-trade bill known as Waxman-Markey, failed, albeit due to forces outside the then-congressman’s control.

But Markey’s full-throated embrace of the Green New Deal has won loyal allies. Sunrise Movement, the grassroots campaigners backing the proposal, made Markey one of its first endorsements in 2019. Sierra Club, the old-guard environmental group with considerable electoral firepower, followed suit. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the face of the Green New Deal movement, endorsed Markey before Kennedy even officially entered the race.

When reporters identified fossil fuel lobbyists among Markey’s donors, groups like Oil Change U.S. ― which oversees the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge ― offered swift forgiveness and worked closely with the senator’s campaign to expunge the contributions and enact a new, stricter vetting process for donors.

“We can break the back of the fossil fuel industry.”

- Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)

Kennedy carries baggage that activists don’t trust. He owns as much as $1.75 million worth of stock in fossil fuel companies, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron, though his campaign has said these are “family holdings over which the Congressman exercises no control.” He’s also received the backing of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a hard-line centrist who was one of just three Democrats to vote against the Green New Deal resolution in March.

“He apparently believes it’s in his best interest,” State Auditor Suzanne Bump, who endorsed Markey, said of Kennedy’s candidacy.

The primary election won’t be held until next September, meaning there’s plenty of time for each of the three contenders to make their case to a state that, despite being solidly blue, has a history of defying electoral expectations. (In 2010, Massachusetts elected right-winger Scott Brown as its first Republican senator since 1972 after former state Attorney General Martha Coakley, considered a shoo-in, neglected to aggressively campaign in the special election.)

But climate change could be the deciding issue of the race.

The issue was already top of mind in the state. Last year, in a WBUR poll, two-thirds of Massachusetts voters said climate change is already increasing the frequency and devastation of storms in the region. National polls indicate that the climate crisis is now a top concern for Democratic primary voters going into the 2020 election.

In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, more than 1.2 million Massachusetts voters cast ballots. In the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, under 600,000 Bay Staters voted. Given those figures, and the increased participation during presidential elections, turnout in next September’s Senate primary could reach about 1 million, said Nathaniel Stinnett, executive director of the Boston-based Environmental Voter Project.

The nonpartisan get-out-the-vote group, which uses algorithms to identify registered voters who don’t usually cast ballots but likely care deeply about environmental issues and then urges them to vote, estimated that as many as 260,000 voters in the Senate primary will be Bay Staters who list climate or the environment as top priorities.

“That means climate voters could have an enormous impact on this election,” Stinnett said.

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