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Young Climate Activists Say Markey Has Their Back. Will They Have His?04:43
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Rep. Joe Kennedy III, left, elbow-bumps Sen. Edward Markey after their debate on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via AP, Pool)
Rep. Joe Kennedy III, left, elbow-bumps Sen. Edward Markey after their debate on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via AP, Pool)

With less than three weeks until the Sept. 1 primary, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy are in a tight race for Markey’s senate seat. Both have positioned themselves as strong climate and environmental justice advocates, and both are campaigning hard for the progressive vote.

So in a race between two candidates with strong environmental records — and similar platforms — climate-oriented voters have to decide which politician is more likely to make green legislation a priority, and be able to push it through Congress.

The first time Saya Ameli Hajebi remembers really noticing Markey was when he and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal resolution in February 2019.

“He took a picture with AOC, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this guy’s kinda old,’ ” she says.

And compared to Hajebi, who is 18 and starting her freshman year at Tufts University this fall, 74-year-old Markey is kind of old.

But Hajebi says she liked his ideas about climate change and was impressed by his passion, so she did some googling about his 40-plus years in Congress.

From his work with the nuclear freeze movement to the groundbreaking 2009 Waxman-Markey bill, Markey’s “consistently been championing progressive solutions, and he’s consistently been standing with our communities in addressing the climate crisis,” Hajebi says. “The more I learned about him, the more I started to realize he’s actually been doing this his entire career.”

So when 39-year-old Kennedy announced last fall that he was challenging Markey in the 2020 primary, Hajebi says there was never really a question about who she would support. In the parlance of Twitter, she’s #StickingWithEd.

And so are a lot of other young people.

“I’m not sure I know a single young person in my climate activism circles or any other kind of political circles who are supporting Joe Kennedy,” says Northampton climate activist Noah Kassis.

Youth climate strike protesters march through Boston toward the State House in September 2019. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Youth climate strike protesters march through Boston toward the State House in September 2019. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Kassis is 17 so can’t cast a ballot in the September primary, but he’s campaigning hard to make sure other young people vote for Markey.

“Ed Markey has really come into this campaign and met the moment; he’s met the progressive demands that young people, activists, organizers and people of color are making,” he says. “If he wins, it’s probably going to be because he had all this youth energy and young people know how to use digital organizing.”

Kassis cites Twitter accounts like @EdBarkey, which features pro-Markey dog-related content, and @gingers4markey, which tweets about the “re-election of the non-redhead junior senator for Massachusetts.”

“Right after Super Tuesday, all these people who had been supporting Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders — all of a sudden, they didn’t have anything to do. And I think that all of this Twitter energy turned pretty quickly to Ed Markey,” he says. “It really popped up organically. I would scroll through my feed and it would just be 80% Ed Markey.”

Of course, Markey’s appeal with young voters goes beyond funny memes. The candidate’s decision to lean into his progressive track record and play up endorsements from the Sunrise Movement and other progressive groups has helped him win over a lot of young climate activists.

And in a way, Kassis thinks the fact that there’s not much difference between Kennedy and Markey’s environmental agendas — both endorse the Green New Deal and oppose the Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Station, for example — actually bodes well for Markey.

“A lot of young people are put off by [Kennedy],” he says. “If Joe Kennedy really believes in everything he’s saying, and really agrees with Ed Markey on all of these issues, then why is he running? A lot of people just can’t see any good articulation of why he’s running other than political ambitions.”

He clarifies that he doesn’t think Kennedy would be a bad senator, and says that if he wins, he’ll support him.

“But I think a lot of young people see this is our moment. This has got to be the decade of the Green New Deal," he says. “And starting out that decade by voting out the person who wrote the Green New Deal seems like a really bad message to send."

Not everyone agrees. Eighteen-year-old Natick resident and Kennedy campaign volunteer Connor Flynn thinks Kennedy would be the better choice for anyone concerned with the environment. Between his broad appeal and calls to abolish the filibuster, Flynn argues that a Sen. Kennedy would be in a stronger position to help push legislation through Congress.

“I understand my friends who support Sen. Markey, but if on Sept. 1 we don’t choose Joe Kennedy, then we as a state have made a bad mistake in the sense that we have just sort of wasted away a full-on champion for our future,” he says.

With the pandemic limiting the candidates' ability to campaign in person, they're all over social media trying to sway voters.

From streaming campaign trail visits on Facebook, to TikTok videos and viral tweets, both the candidates and their competing supporters are generating a lot of content. What’s a little less clear is how far this effort is reaching.

“Twitter isn’t the Democratic base and young people on Twitter are not ‘young people’ broadly,” says Kristian Lundberg, a 25-year-old associate researcher at Circle, an applied research center at Tufts University.

“People often try to lump young people together in ways that just aren’t accurate and don’t speak to the diversity that young people have,” he says. “So for example, it is very true that young people care a lot about the environment, but there are many issues that are also important to young people, such as racism and police treatment of communities of color and immigration.”

Just because a lot of young people are making digital noise about Markey, doesn’t necessarily mean their candidate is the overwhelming choice of young people statewide, he says.

Overall, the candidates appear to be in a tight race. But a new WBUR poll (topline, crosstabs), conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, found that among 18-34 year olds, Markey’s favorability rating is twice that of Kennedy — 30% versus 15%. But Kennedy has more name recognition, which means a lot will hinge on turnout.

Results from a WBUR poll conducted Aug. 6-9 of 501 likely general election voters. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4%. (MassINC Polling Group)
Results from a WBUR poll conducted Aug. 6-9 of 501 likely general election voters. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4%. (MassINC Polling Group)

“If there are fewer voters in the primary, those voters are likely to be more engaged, activist types that seem to be embracing Markey,” says MassINC research director Richard Parr. “If there are more voters in the primary, a lot of them may come in not knowing Markey but at least knowing of Kennedy, and they may vote for the name they know over the one they don’t.”

In other words, a small youth turnout might favor Markey and a bigger youth turnout could tip the scales in Kennedy’s favor.

And between the growth of the Sunrise Movement and other youth activism groups, and the expected surge in mail-in voting, no one really knows how big the youth climate vote is, and whether it will make a difference.

Inside the Boston State House, youth climate strikers demand a Green New Deal in September 2019. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Inside the Boston State House, youth climate strikers demand a Green New Deal in September 2019. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“I feel like every single election, there are experts who say, ‘This time there’s going to be a tidal wave of youth turnout,’ and then they are far more often wrong than right,” says Nathaniel Stinnett, executive director of Environmental Voter Project, a non-partisan group that works to identify environmentalists and turn them into consistent voters.

“The senate candidates are talking about climate change because politicians need to win elections. They measure what voters — not non-voters — voters care about, and then they use that information to try to win more votes," he says. “So the very fact that Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy are talking about climate leads me to believe that they sure as heck think that a good number of young climate voters will be turning out to vote.”

This segment aired on August 13, 2020.

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Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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