Markey And Kennedy Find Plenty To Disagree About In Latest Senate Debate

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Rep. Joe Kennedy III speaks during a televised debate with Sen. Edward Markey in East Providence, R.I., June 8, 2020. (Jessica Bradley/WPRI-TV via AP)
Rep. Joe Kennedy III speaks during a televised debate with Sen. Edward Markey in East Providence, R.I., June 8, 2020. (Jessica Bradley/WPRI-TV via AP)

Despite agreeing on most issues, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy III found plenty to argue about in their latest debate Sunday night, five weeks before the Sept. 1 primary. They sparred about their records, who is the most progressive and who is best prepared to lead during a pandemic and a racial justice movement.

The race is for a Senate seat that now belongs to Markey, a 74-year-old incumbent who has been serving in Washington since before his 39-year-old challenger was even born. So, perhaps not surprisingly, Kennedy's main argument to replace Markey is that it's time for new leadership. And, he faults Markey for not being more present in Massachusetts.

"I went around the country [in 2018] and tried to campaign for other Democrats so that we could regain control and pass a progressive agenda," Kennedy said Sunday. "Senator Markey, by his own campaign's admission, was nowhere. But he wasn't at home either. You talk to folks in western Massachusetts, you talk to folks in communities like Roxbury and Dorchester and Mattapan and Springfield and Worcester, and he wasn't there. There is so much more that is needed at this moment than just someone who files the right bill and says that's enough."

On the other hand, Markey's main pitch for re-election is that he has a long record of successful, progressive leadership, which goes all the way back to the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s. More recently, he co-sponsored Medicare for All legislation and the Green New Deal with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; he's pushed for net neutrality and LGBTQ rights.

Markey's main case against Kennedy is that he claims the young congressman doesn't have a credible record as a progressive. For example, he points out that after Kennedy graduated from law school, he went to work for Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, a tough law and order conservative. And, he says, Kennedy has shifted his stances on a number of issues, including legalization of marijuana, which he originally opposed.

"Back in 2015, he actually voted to send military weapons into the streets of our country — for the police," Markey said. "Now he says he doesn't take that position any longer. Is it conviction? Or is it political convenience?"

Kennedy has pointed out that Markey too has recanted some of his past positions, including his vote in favor of the Iraq War.

On Sunday, Kennedy also revived a charge that has dogged Markey in the past: that he spends more time in his Chevy Chase, Maryland home than he does in Massachusetts. During the debate, reporter Alison King of NBC10 Boston pressed Markey on the issue, creating an awkward moment for the senator.

"My campaign is providing that information," Markey said. "It will be out there for the public to see."

But Markey had promised that in the last debate in June, so King pressed him, asking, "What has taken you so long?"

Markey stammered and appeared flustered, and sought refuge in a well rehearsed campaign line: "Again, I just don't fight for Massachusetts. I deliver for Massachusetts," he said.

The moment led to one of the more spirited exchanges in the debate, with Kennedy saying that being in the state matters because being close to and hearing directly from citizens matters. Markey pushed back and said he is in the state a lot — which is why lots of mayors, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and a number of other local officials, have endorsed him.

"In [Joe Kennedy's] own congressional district, 19 of the state representatives and state senators are endorsing me," Markey said. "Only four in his own congressional district, who know him best, are endorsing him."

Kennedy responded: "This is why we need change — because it is a Washington [way to think] that endorsements of elected officials means credibility and success. That is the politics of the past and it does not work."

Kennedy had the edge in this race, according to polling before the pandemic, but that was months ago. Recent fundraising numbers give a slight edge to Markey. As of now, it looks like a close race, but the pandemic has turned conventional campaigning upside down, so the future is unclear. What is certain is that it will be up to the voters in just five weeks.

This segment aired on July 27, 2020.


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



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