LAWRENCE, Mass. – The yell came clear from the 10th story of an apartment building at the intersection of Essex and Broadway in this heavily Latino, working-class city: “KENNEDY! KENNEDY!”
Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III, sporting a shock of red hair that makes it clear that yes, that man on your sidewalk is, in fact, a member of America’s most famous political dynasty, looked up and yelled back, asking the woman in Spanish if she planned to vote. Yes, she responded, for him.
It was the type of scene — a working-class immigrant pledging their vote to a Kennedy in a Democratic Primary — that has powered the family’s political pursuits for more than a century, from Honey Fitz’s first term as mayor of Boston in 1910 all the way through Joe Kennedy III’s first election to the House in 2012.
But Kennedy’s challenge to Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, a race Kennedy was once a near-lock to win, is now providing that dynasty with its biggest test in decades, threatening the Kennedy family with their first ever loss in a Massachusetts statewide race. The contest has scrambled the ideological and generational fissures in the Democratic Party, with the resulting mixture spitting out leads for Markey as the pair headed into the final weekend of campaigning.
It’s a race between two men with widely overlapping voting records and shared positions on key issues that has somehow become an ideological showdown. Kennedy, 39, wants to be the young changemaker candidate. But it’s Markey, the septuagenarian with the backing of progressive firebrands like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement, who has become an icon for Generation Z.
The two have divided Democratic congressional leaders: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is backing Kennedy, Chuck Schumer is defending Markey. (Most House members have followed Pelosi, senators have stuck with Schumer.)
And the fight has somehow turned nasty, despite almost everyone involved in the campaigns, and most of the voting public, claiming to have respect for both men running.
There are obvious differences between Markey and Kennedy: One’s a senior citizen, the other’s a millennial; one comes from a working-class background, one is a descendent of the most prominent American political dynasty; one was almost immediately sent into the political spotlight, while the other toiled on congressional backbenches for decades, only leaping to the Senate in a low-profile special election in 2013.
But in a party that often hypes its gender and racial diversity, both are white men. And ― despite the efforts of both campaigns to portray the other as a traitor to the cause of progressivism ― there isn’t too much ideological daylight between their campaign platforms.
But even more than an ideological battle, the race has become a fight over who a senator should be and what they should do. Markey argues his unglamourous work helping cities and towns, combined with his long history of environmental activism culminating in the Green New Deal, has delivered for the state. Kennedy argues Markey has been too low-profile, especially on issues involving racial justice, and is not the type of national leader that Democratic senators from Massachusetts are expected to be — i.e. Kennedys, Elizabeth Warren or John Kerry.
“Everyone asked, ‘Why is Joe Kennedy running against Ed Markey?’ A good chunk of this is going to be, ‘Why should Ed Markey be reelected?’” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in the state.
“No one in any of these communities has asked me why I’m running”
The first question ― why is Kennedy challenging Markey? ― is one that’s hung over the race, with Kennedy struggling to answer it on occasion. Markey supporters have accused him of wasting precious political money, time and energy on his personal glory.
“There is absolute talent that Joe Kennedy has, but a lot of us are struggling with the rationale,” said Mark DiSalvo, a longtime member of the Massachusetts Democratic Party Committee and strong Markey supporter. “Why do any of us who are active in Massachusetts politics have to be wasting one second of our time and organizing effort and money at swapping out a skilled senator when that time could be spent on defeating Donald Trump, or knocking doors in Maine to flip the United States Senate?”
Kennedy has ultimately settled on the idea that Markey — who was the subject of a 2017 Boston Magazine profile that asked, “Is Ed Markey really the best we can do?” — is not living up to the standard set by famed Massachusetts senators of the past, a cohort that happens to include two of Kennedy’s blood relatives.
“I believe we — Massachusetts, the Democratic Party, the country — need to get an awful lot more out of the seat, because being a senator from Massachusetts comes with an extraordinary platform and political capital that particularly at this time needs to be used,” Kennedy said in an interview with HuffPost. “And I don’t think Senator Markey is doing all that he can in order to use that as effectively as we’ve got to.”
His uncle, Ted Kennedy, wrote and passed landmark legislation on health care and immigration. John Kerry led crusading investigations of international corruption, became a presidential nominee and then secretary of state. Elizabeth Warren is one of the leaders of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.
Markey responded to this critique incredulously, noting his leading role in promoting the Green New Deal alongside Ocasio-Cortez. “What does Kennedy — what issue does he lead on nationally?” he asked. “What is that issue?”
“The Green New Deal is great,” Kennedy said, noting that he is also a co-sponsor of the legislation. “The senator’s been in office for 47 years, the Green New Deal was filed 18 months ago.”
Kennedy ticked off the ways Markey isn’t living up to the standard: He lives primarily in Washington, D.C.; he’s been missing votes recently; and he has not become a leader in the party nationally ― Kennedy is quick to note that he campaigned in 20 states during the 2018 midterm election cycle, compared to zero for Markey.
In response Markey ticked off an even longer list of legislation he’s worked on in his life: a push to bring competition into the cable television industry, his campaign to freeze nuclear weapons development; the cap and trade bill that was the closest Congress ever got to seriously confronting climate change.
These speeches are well rehearsed, and this back and forth has become familiar: Kennedy attempts to paint Markey as a nobody, and Markey rattles of things he’s done over 40 years in office.
In the final days of the race, Kennedy has zeroed in on racial justice, hammering Markey in ways reminiscent of progressive attacks on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden during the primary campaign, noting a string of ugly votes and positions from across Markey’s long time in office: supporting a constitutional amendment to ban school desegregation via busing; voting for an amendment blocking the IRS from denying tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University, which banned interracial dating; voting for the crime bill in the 1990s.
“He can’t point to a seminal achievement on this issue,” Kennedy said, noting that Markey has released a list of more than 40 pieces of signature legislation, none of which deal directly with race. “I don’t think he’s somehow going to become a racial justice champion.”
Markey admitted he’s taken some bad votes, but race, he said, is at the center of every major piece of legislation he’s pushed, from getting internet access into schools and libraries through the 1996 telecommunications law to the Green New Deal.
On Thursday, Kennedy campaigned with New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat in Lawrence and Chelsea, two of Massachusetts’ “gateway cities” — racially diverse mid-size cities that have struggled as the state’s economy has shifted away from industry and towards technology. Both are among the localities in the state hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. (Lawrence, in particular, has a significant population of Dominican immigrants. Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic.)
But Kennedy’s message isn’t simply aimed at driving up turnout among the Black, Latino and Asian voters who live in those communities. It’s also aimed at persuading the more upscale liberal voters whose increased interest in racial justice has reshaped Democratic politics in recent years. Those voters also happen to be Markey’s base.
“Around this state, a lot of people have asked me why I’m running in this race,” Kennedy said at a press conference in Chelsea, before ticking off a list of diverse cities where he had campaigned in recent days and adding, “No one in any of these communities has asked me why I’m running.”
“All I can do is run on my record”
At the start of the summer, Markey wasn’t interested in reflecting, at least not publicly, on why he suddenly found himself in real danger of losing his Senate seat.
“All I can do is run on my record,” Markey told HuffPost in late June. Pressed, he said only, “My opponent has the right to run.”
Markey hasn’t always been as kind. He and his allies have brushed past the blemishes his record has accumulated (including a vote for the Iraq War) and worked to portray Markey as a leftist champion in a strictly ideological battle, calling Kennedy a “progressive in name only.”
In his stump speech, Markey emphasizes his late-in-the-life transition to progressive star, repeatedly name-dropping Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, two prominent progressives who upset incumbent congressmen in 2018. He surely mentions intersectionality more than any other 74-year-old white man in the United States. The Markey campaign has aired an ad featuring Ocasio-Cortez speaking direct to the camera thousands of times in the state.
“The problems we are facing today of systemic injustice and inequality require strong, progressive leaders,” Ocasio-Cortez says in the ad. “And Ed Markey is that champion.”
The Sunrise Movement, a group of young climate activists, has played a central role in rebranding Markey as a progressive leader and building up an army of digital activists meme-ing, tweeting and fundraising on his behalf. Mailers from the progressive group Indivisible Action play up his endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Warren. (Warren has endorsed Markey, but has avoided directly criticizing Kennedy, a former law student of hers. Both men endorsed her presidential bid.)
But Markey is not exclusively backed by earnest young leftists. Many of his supporters have known him from his decades in Congress, and are the type of state legislators and local officials who progressives would dismiss as irrelevant party hacks in a different race. Even Kennedy conceded that had the Massachusetts Democratic Party held its convention as scheduled (it was canceled due to the pandemic), Markey would have won its endorsement in a landslide.
And Markey mixes his ideological pitch with a biographical one. Campaigning in Melrose last week, Markey ticked off the various blue-collar jobs he held in high school and while attending Boston College: He worked for a candy factory, delivered mail one Christmas, and drove an ice cream truck over a summer. He never mentioned Kennedy by name, but it wasn’t hard to see the contrast with his more privileged opponent.
Markey has also played up his humble background as a Malden, Massachusetts, native in television ads. But he hasn’t been able to crack Kennedy’s advantage among working-class voters in public polling. (Support among the state’s labor base is split; most of the building unions are backing Kennedy, while the teacher’s unions and service workers have backed Markey.)
Still, it has some effect. Melrose Mayor Paul Brodeur, in an interview after Markey’s appearance, said he had been torn between Kennedy and Markey when the younger man first entered the race. But he endorsed Markey in part because his rags-to-Congress story reminded him of his own family’s journey.
“That synergy resonates for me,” Brodeur said.
But Markey is also arguing he’s been quietly delivering for Massachusetts voters for decades, even if they never heard about it, or forgot about it. His campaign has highlighted Markey’s own forays into the national spotlight, most of which ― a massive rally in Central Park on nuclear disarmament, a speech at the Democratic National Convention on climate change ― came decades ago.
But they’re also making localized arguments: When Markey campaigned in the suburb of Woburn, those who spoke before him highlighted his work to get funds for the cleanup of a toxic waste site nearby, noting it was now an office park that helped keep property taxes low. The campaign is aggressively highlighting a website it designed that lays out how Markey has helped each of the state’s 351 municipalities.
“It’s time to start asking what your country can do for you”
Kennedy’s fate isn’t sealed. The coronavirus pandemic has led Massachusetts to adopt mail-in voting on a mass scale for the first time, and no one is quite sure how record-high turnout will reshape the Democratic primary electorate in the state. But momentum has definitely shifted toward Markey, and the days of a near-certain Kennedy win are long gone.
If there was a moment that cemented the narrative shift in the race, it was the release of a Markey campaign video on Aug. 13. Much of the video was Markey campaign boilerplate ― progressive policies, working-class biography ― but the final line was the equivalent of a declaration of war in Massachusetts politics.
“With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you,” Markey said, turning the most famous piece of Kennedy family rhetoric on its head.
It kicked off a firestorm. Kennedy’s campaign accused Markey of disrespecting one of the most important families in Democratic politics, highlighting memes from Markey supporters mocking the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And Pelosi cited the line when explaining why she endorsed Kennedy — an endorsement that is appearing in ads from Kennedy’s campaign and a super PAC backing him.
“I wasn’t too happy with some of the assault that I saw made on the Kennedy family,” she told The Washington Post last week, adding that she “felt an imperative to” endorse him.
Disrespectful or not, it was a quote that inadvertently summed up Markey’s message to the voters of Massachusetts. It was a rebuke of the Kennedy model of senator; an argument that you don’t need to be at the center of the national debate or deliver world-famous speeches or run for president in order to be an effective legislator.
On Tuesday, we’ll find out if Massachusetts voters agree.