When you reside in a state like Massachusetts that’s smitten with its own history and iconography, it’s easy to take things for granted. Dunkin' Donuts will always be open, the Patriots will be victorious next Sunday, and every few years, another Kennedy will run for office.
The latest member of the commonwealth’s most dynastic political family to continue this tradition is Joseph Kennedy III, a U.S. congressman who’s represented the 4th District since 2013. Last week, Kennedy announced that he’s running for the Senate in 2020.
“This isn’t a time for waiting, for sitting on the sidelines, or for playing by rules that don’t work anymore,” Kennedy said in an announcement on Twitter. “This is the fight of our lives, the fight of my generation — and I’m all in.”
The most telling part of Kennedy’s campaign announcement is the phrase “the fight of my generation.” Kennedy’s target is Sen. Ed Markey, 73 years old and a member of Congress since 1976. (Kennedy is 38 years old, which puts him on the upper edge of the millennial generation.)
The last few years of Democratic politics have been characterized by David and Goliath primary races in which younger, upstart candidates — such as New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota’s Rep. Ilhan Omar — defeated baby boomer politicians backed by party machinery. In Massachusetts, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, while not technically a millennial at 45 years old, managed to ride this youth insurgency wave to a landslide victory against incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano.
Most of these insurgents have run against the incumbents from the left. In their pursuit of a better future for all, they are powering their campaigns with the “new generation” rhetoric that Kennedy is now borrowing and lobbing at Markey.
There’s just one problem: Joe Kennedy is running against Ed Markey from the right.
This crucial but overlooked difference can be boiled down to political decisions. Unlike Markey, Pressley and other newly installed progressive politicians, Kennedy has been lukewarm on bold ideas like legalizing cannabis and Medicare for all. In Boston’s 2018 district attorney race, Kennedy stumped for Greg Henning, the most conservative candidate in the race and the choice of wealthy white residents and police unions. (In the end, Rachael Rollins came out on top.)
But perhaps the most convincing case against Kennedy can be made by scrutinizing the progressive bona fides of his opponent.
Most recently, Markey stepped up and worked with Ocasio-Cortez to co-author America’s first Green New Deal legislation. What they created is a blueprint that would decarbonize and rebuild the U.S. economy for the future era of climate change, while ensuring that poor people wouldn’t be left to fall through the cracks. It’s just the sort of "better future" survival plan that millions of young people in America and around the world called for in last week’s historic climate strikes.
The Green New Deal wasn’t a vanity project for Markey. He’s been a strong advocate for environmental protections for most of his career — another issue on which Kennedy has been less than outspoken — and Markey also sees eye-to-eye with young voters on matters like net neutrality and single payer health care.
That’s what Kennedy is going up against, and so, the question is, why is he even doing this right now?
The “new generation” argument doesn’t really work if you’re running to the right of an older politician whose views are more in line with those held by your millennial peers.
There’s a solid case to be made that Congress could use more young leaders, but if you’re another white man with deep family wealth, is your ascendancy really all that empowering for young people as a whole? Beating Markey would be a victory for Kennedy, and more of the same for the vast majority of young people who’ve grown tired of runaway privilege and politics as usual.
For progressives, Kennedy’s campaign against Markey is exasperating and potentially harmful, as it will divert donor money and volunteer labor away from other Democratic campaigns happening next year.
At the same time, Kennedy’s gambit is an opportunity to replace him with someone better qualified to carry the mantle of millennial insurgency. (Ihssane Leckey, a Brookline resident, activist and finance regulator, launched a primary campaign against Kennedy before he went after Markey’s seat, is looking like a promising alternative. A few other candidates have entered the race this week as well.)
It’s possible that Kennedy could defeat Markey on account of his family name and our habit of electing politicians who feel safe and familiar. But this predilection for the people and traditions we know should also inspire us to look at Markey’s record carefully. Because the thing is, he’s been there for us, year after year.
Will we return the favor?