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Massachusetts Senate primary: Ed Markey tries to defend his seat from a Kennedy

CNN logo CNN 8/15/2020 By Alex Rogers, CNN
Joseph P. Kennedy III, Ed Markey are posing for a picture © Getty Images

Rep. Joe Kennedy rejected the initial calls for him to run for Senate more than a year ago, saying in an interview that the "thought literally never crossed my mind to jump into a Democratic primary" against his friend, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who has served in Congress since before he was born and has known Kennedy throughout his life.

Yet after repeated requests, Kennedy took a look and saw that despite 44 yearxs in the US House and Senate, Markey was not beloved in the state. So, the four-term congressman announced a Senate bid in the fall of 2019 focused on "social and economic justice," offering generational change.

"I believe we are at a pivotal moment in our nation for the Democratic Party, for our future," Kennedy, 39, told CNN this week. "I think a United States Senator can do something about it. And I think that Senator Markey has not given us enough."

A Kennedy has never lost Massachusetts. But the presumptive heir to the Democratic Party's family dynasty may have made a risky bet. Markey, 74, has countered the shine of the Kennedy name by projecting the power of some of the party's stars, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who have fundraised for the senator.

The race has turned ugly in the past few weeks, as mail-in voting has begun and people have started to pay attention ahead of the September 1 primary. Markey has hammered Kennedy for not articulating a reason for running. Kennedy has responded that he would be a better senator, knocking Markey for spending less time at home in Massachusetts than any other member of the state's congressional delegation, based on a Boston Globe analysis, even when Warren was running for president.

The two Democrats, who don't disagree much on policy, stepped up the personal attacks in a televised debate this week. Markey pressed Kennedy on his membership in a college fraternity, whose "spiritual founder" was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. (Kennedy says he chose to unaffiliate last year.) Kennedy repeatedly noted that a family has accused Markey of doing little when their Black son, D.J. Henry, was shot and killed by a White police officer 10 years ago. (Markey told CNN he has apologized to the family, adding, "We should now focus on moving forward to get justice" for them.)

Markey urged Kennedy to ask his father, former Rep. Joe Kennedy, and twin brother to pull down a super PAC's attack ads; Kennedy retorted that some Markey supporters have said Lee Harvey Oswald "got the wrong Kennedy." Markey told CNN that such comments are "reprehensible," calling those who say them "not supporters of mine."

Old versus new?

His supporters say Markey deserves another six-year term based on his voting record and point to his co-authorship of the Green New Deal and earlier support of "Medicare for All" as signs that he is of the times.

"When it comes to progressive leadership, it's not your age that counts, it's the age of your ideas," Ocasio-Cortez said in an ad. "And Ed Markey is the leader that we need."

But Kennedy has maintained that he would be a different kind of senator, who will travel across the country and the state to elect Democrats, as he did in 2018 to help the party retake the House.

"He went nowhere," Kennedy told CNN of Markey.

Video: GOP congressional candidate slammed for visiting Hitler retreat (CNN)

Markey's supporters say that his political prowess is underestimated and tout his attachment to Malden, where the senator grew up as the son of a milkman. Izzy Klein, a former Markey aide, said "the bulk of what we did" during the George W. Bush administration was campaign for Democrats to win the House and White House. "The idea that he somehow has skirted a responsibility to help other Democrats win is just -- it couldn't be further from the truth," Klein said. "It's just outrageous."

Stephen Tocco, one of Markey's first aides, called him a "diligent campaigner" who wore down the heels of his shoes to "almost nothing" during his first congressional race in 1976. When they went to the cobbler to get them repaired, Tocco recalled, Markey asked him to go into the store because he didn't have another pair and had holes in his socks.

This year, that kind of campaigning has been limited by the coronavirus pandemic. But the race has still been an intense battle for voters.

Before Kennedy even got in the race, Markey locked up many of the endorsements from the top Democratic officials in the state. Annissa Essaibi-George, a Boston at-large city councilor, said that Markey "certainly demonstrated a deeper commitment" to "progressive values" on issues like the environment and health care. She also touted his work on expanding internet access and pushing lately for hazard pay for essential workers and free public transit.

Kennedy's grandfather is the late attorney general Robert F. Kennedy; his great uncles are former President John F. Kennedy and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. But his campaign has not solely relied on his famous last name. He has sought votes throughout the state and pushed since March a plan to give $4,000 to every adult who makes under $100,000 per year during the coronavirus crisis and $1,000 for every child. John Brissette, a Worcester Democratic official, said Kennedy has been in his hometown much more than Markey. He's been a supporter of the Kennedys in the past and is backing the congressman for Senate this year because, he said, "Joe just shows up."

But it's clear that the work of previous generations benefits his candidacy.

Gerly Adrien, who won her first race for Everett's at-large city councilor in 2019, recalled how both Senate candidates sought her support. She was impressed by Kennedy's grasp of racial justice in one of their conversations, including his ability to cite the mortality rate for Black mothers. Still, Adrien was undecided until she called her mother, who told her daughter their family had received oil from a nonprofit set up by Kennedy's father for low-income families. Adrien decided to endorse him that day.

"I think when it comes to racial equity, fighting for the issues on the ground that my residents are going to care about, I saw Joe Kennedy was going to be that person," Adrien said.

Sparring over Markey's record

While there is little difference in their current policy positions, Markey and Kennedy have sparred over the senator's long record in elected office.

Markey has suggested that Kennedy is a legislative lightweight, while claiming that he has written over 500 laws providing affordable internet to schools and libraries, raising fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, raising billions of dollars for Alzheimer's research and even deterring robocalls. He said he has been leading political revolutions since at least the 1980s, when he introduced the nuclear freeze resolution and nearly a million people gathered in New York's Central Park to demand an end to the nuclear arms race.

"I stand up," Markey told CNN. "I create the movements which are necessary to solve these huge problems."

"At this point, I don't think there's much evidence that my opponent has provided that kind of historic leadership on the big issues that pose threats to the people of our country," he added.

Kennedy has tried to poke holes in Markey's record, raising the senator's long-ago opposition to abortion rights and busing to achieve racial integration in public schools, as well as a number of votes for bills that progressives abhor today: the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, the 1994 crime bill, the Patriot Act in 2001 and the authorization for use of military force against Iraq in 2002. He claims that Markey's signature bill, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has a much more mixed record than the senator lets on, alleging that it has led to a loss of competition and jobs even in Malden. And he knocks Markey for being the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation in 2013 to vote for a bill that included a boost in the quota for beds for immigrant detainees, which critics say puts more behind bars for no reason.

Markey's campaign has responded that the attacks are a sign of an increasingly desperate campaign and a misrepresentation of his record.

Despite being outspent on ads by the Kennedy campaign and a pro-Kennedy super PAC, the Markey campaign has claimed that it has the momentum. It narrowly outraised Kennedy's during the last financial quarter, telling CNN it brought in over a fifth of its three-month total on the last day, June 30.

If there were a moment for Markey to despair, it would've been over a year ago, when a Kennedy announced he would run against him. When asked if he ever considered retiring, as some in political circles wondered, Markey was defiant, pointing to the lessons learned from his father and the house where he was raised, where he still lives today.

"I think anyone who was speculating along the lines that I wasn't going to be in this race did not understand me, or my father, or the house that I grew up in," Markey said. "There wasn't even a single moment where I was going to do anything other than run for reelection in the era of Donald Trump to continue to fight him."


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