Kennedy Officially Launches His Primary Bid To Unseat Sen. Markey

Download Audio
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III announces his Senate candidacy in East Boston on Saturday. (Josh Reynolds/AP)
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III announces his Senate candidacy in East Boston on Saturday. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

Promising new ideas and a new commitment to break down what he called "a broken system," Congressman Joe Kennedy III officially kicked off his bid for the U.S. Senate Saturday morning, launching a Democratic primary challenge against the incumbent, Ed Markey.

Kennedy made the announcement in East Boston, where his immigrant ancestors first landed in the United States before his family went on to establish a storied political dynasty.

"Patrick Kennedy, my great-grandfather, was born a few blocks from here on Meridian Street," Kennedy told a crowd of hundreds of supporters who filled the East Boston Social Centers. "His son served this neighborhood in Congress, and then went to serve as president of the United States."

Kennedy, 38, was first elected to Congress in 2012. He's the son of the former congressman whose name he bears, the grandson of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the grand nephew of former President John F. Kennedy.

He said his campaign to unseat Markey would focus on several issues, including fighting for economic justice, fixing a broken immigration system, and confronting the question of why 63 million Americans voted for President Trump.

"It's not enough just to fight back against Donald Trump," Kennedy told reporters. "You've got to address the underlying structures — the calcified system, a broken system — that allowed him to win in the first place."

Kennedy's decision to take on Markey represents a stunning and ambitious move for the young U.S. representative who two years ago told WBUR that he had no plans to challenge the veteran lawmaker.

"Markey has been a dear friend to me and my family for an awfully long time," he said in a 2017 interview, adding that he hoped Markey would remain in the Senate "for a while." But in that same interview, Kennedy also acknowledged that "timing is everything. And ... opportunities don't come up that often."

Two years later, Kennedy is hoping that a widespread desire for change on the part of many voters represents an opportunity for him — as it did for Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who vanquished veteran Democratic incumbents in primary elections.

"Kennedy is a breath of fresh air," said Kathleen Monteleone of Boston, who came out to hear the congressman speak Saturday. Monteleone said she has admired the Kennedy family for decades. "I saw [President Kennedy] speak and I was inspired ever since. So, I've been a fan of the Kennedys. All of them made a difference in the world."

Kennedy and Markey are both reliable progressives, so this primary contest will not be waged around significant policy differences. Instead, it will represent a generational clash between 73-year-old Markey, Massachusetts' longest serving member of Congress, and Kennedy, who was born in 1980, four years after Markey was first elected to the House.

"I welcome the race," Markey told reporters Thursday night in Lawrence, where he cast himself as a fierce opponent of President Trump and promised to wage a campaign based on his long record of liberal advocacy.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington in January. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in January. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

"I'm running on the issues I feel most strongly about," Markey said. "That [includes] climate change, income inequality, immigration rights, gun-safety laws, health care and educational opportunities for everyone."

Markey also pointed to his family's working class roots, which he said gives him an appreciation of the challenges many Americans face. It also offers a stark contrast to Kennedy's upbringing in one of America's most prominent — and privileged — political families.

"My father is from Lawrence," Markey said. "He grew up on the first floor of a triple-decker. I know how hard these people work."

Earlier this year, Markey teamed up with Ocasio-Cortez to sponsor the Green New Deal resolution, strengthening his reputation as a leading progressive in Washington. On Thursday, he made reference to the New York congresswoman's endorsement.

"Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said today that I am the generational change that America needs," Markey said. "This is the most energized I have ever been in my career."

A long list of prominent Massachusetts Democrats have endorsed Markey, including his fellow senator and presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren. So has Mayor Dan Rivera of Lawrence, who was with Markey Thursday evening.

"In our darkest hours here in Lawrence, he stood up for us," Rivera said, referring to Markey's response to the natural gas explosions last year that sparked dozens of destructive fires in the Merrimack Valley communities of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.

"I'm a veteran, and when we were in war we never ran to the youngest lieutenant to get leadership; we went to the oldest major," Rivera said. "And that's what we [have with Markey]. We need people to fight for us [and] he has perspective that I don't think a young guy has."

While the two politicians come from different eras, Kennedy rejected the suggestion that youth gives him an advantage.

"This has nothing to do with age," he said. "This is about vision, leadership and the energy that I think [we need] to change the structures that have divided our country so deeply."

"This has nothing to do with age. This is about vision, leadership and the energy that I think [we need] to change the structures that have divided our country so deeply."

U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III

The structural changes that Kennedy would pursue include getting corporate PAC money out of politics. "I've rejected that [money], Markey has not," he said.

Kennedy is also in favor of term limits for Supreme Court justices and abolishing the Electoral College.

The race is already attracting national attention, and represents a complicated choice for many Massachusetts Democrats — exciting many, while angering others.

"It's ego at the expense of value," said Barney Frank, who used to hold the congressional seat now occupied by Kennedy. Frank argues that for Kennedy to pick a fight with Markey, with whom he has no ideological differences, is self-indulgent and harmful to Democrats, who should instead focus on their fight with Republicans and Trump.

"Subverting our energy from that, using up the money and manpower — and changing the debate — is a terrible mistake," Frank said.

"I just don't think that's the case," Kennedy said Saturday. "I think what you need in this country are broad-based campaigns bringing people into the political process, not trying to keep them out of it."

As Kennedy launches his campaign for the Senate, he is seen as a young star in the Democratic Party after delivering an impassioned speech on the House floor decrying Trump's immigration policies. He then gave the rebuttal to Trump's State of the Union Address last year.

Early polls suggest that his family name and rising prominence within the party could represent a formidable challenge to Markey. A Boston Globe-Suffolk University poll conducted earlier this month showed him with a 14 point lead over the incumbent.

In addition to Kennedy, two other candidates  — labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and businessman Steve Pemberton -- are challenging Markey in the Democratic primary.

Markey said Kennedy reached out to him earlier this week.

"He told me that he had made the decision to run," Markey said. "And I said to him, 'Welcome to the campaign trail. I'm looking forward to this debate over the next year.' "

In East Boston on Saturday, Kennedy summed up his strategy for the coming year: "Run hard."

This segment aired on September 23, 2019.

Earlier Coverage:

Headshot of Anthony Brooks

Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live