Kennedy, Markey clash over race, criminal justice during WPRI 12 Senate debate

SE Mass

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The two Democrats vying for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts came out swinging during an emotional debate Monday, attacking each other’s records on issues of racial inequality, campaign finance and overall effectiveness in Congress.

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and his challenger, Congressman Joe Kennedy III, faced off during a televised debate hosted by WPRI 12, discussing a variety of issues including nationwide protests over racial injustice, the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 and ongoing economic challenges in Southeastern Massachusetts. The debate was moderated by WPRI 12’s Tim White and Ted Nesi.

Watch: Full WPRI 12 debate between Sen. Markey, Congressman Kennedy »

The two men have struggled throughout the campaign to differentiate themselves, both espousing progressive ideals that often sound more similar than different. But that didn’t stop Markey – a 73-year-old political veteran, who has shown restraint in previous debates – from taking aim at Kennedy’s work record.

He criticized the 39-year-old Newton resident for taking a job as an assistant district attorney with a Republican district attorney on Cape Cod after graduating from Harvard Law School.

“When Congressman Kennedy became a lawyer he decided to go to work for the most conservative Republican, right-wing district attorney in Massachusetts in a generation,” Markey said, referring to Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, a vocal critic of criminal justice reform and fellow attorneys who support progressive causes.

Q&A: Analysis of 2020 Massachusetts Senate debate »

Kennedy deflected, saying it’s important for progressive attorneys to work in Republican-controlled district attorney offices, and he criticized Markey for suggesting otherwise. He then shot back, slamming the incumbent for opposing the integration of Boston Public Schools in the 1970s, and supporting the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

The law, sometimes referred to as the Clinton crime bill, is widely criticized for hurting communities of color and accelerating mass incarceration.

“This isn’t just a question of Senator Markey’s vote for a 1994 crime bill, but the longstanding record of judgement that he’s shown,” Kennedy said. “There hasn’t been a deliberate effort to address those structural challenges that he helped codify into law.”

The exchanges over issues related to racial inequality and criminal justice – which were heated and emotional at times – were punctuated by Kennedy saying Markey isn’t known for supporting racial and criminal justice, and the senator calling Kennedy “a progressive in name only.”

In less contentious moments of the debate, the similarities between the two candidates became more apparent, as both men said they support fighting climate change, legalizing marijuana, forgiving student debt and extending federal aid to undocumented workers negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Both men criticized Republican President Donald Trump and his administration on a variety of issues, with Markey at one point calling him a “serial liar” and “racist.” On regional issues, the politicians said they would both support expanding some of the work happening at Falmouth-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to New Bedford and other parts of Bristol County.

The public health crisis has resulted in widespread joblessness across the state, but it’s especially bad in Southeastern Massachusetts. In April, every city and town in Bristol County – with the exception of Easton – reported higher unemployment than the 15.1% statewide. New Bedford led the way with a 24.4% unemployment rate, higher than any point during the Great Recession.  

“We’re in a pandemic, we’re in a great depression, both are going on at the same time,” Markey said.

The similarities between the two have made it challenging for Kennedy to show voters why they should change their senator, but he’s found some traction in pointing out that Markey is unwilling to sign a so-called People’s Pledge, which would limit outside spending on campaigns – even though Markey signed one during his 2013 race for the Senate seat he now holds.

When asked about a political action committee that formed to support Kennedy, the congressman said he asked them to not spend the money on him, instead urging the group to donate it to Black Lives Matter.

“I don’t expect that money to come in and I challenge the senator to do the same,” Kennedy said, suggesting doing so otherwise opens the door for the fossil fuel industry to spend on his behalf.

Markey claims he didn’t sign the pledge this election cycle because doing so would limit the ability of opponents of the fossil fuel industry to spend money on elections during the Trump era.

He also underscored that a slew of environmental groups are aware of this fact and have nonetheless endorsed his campaign because they support his record on fighting the fossil fuel industry.

“They all had a decision to make and they chose me in this race,” Markey said.   

After the discussion ended, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth political science professor Shannon Jenkins said there was no clear winner, but she noted that Kennedy continues to struggle to differentiate himself — and that Markey showed some fire and anger.

“Both of the candidates displayed a lot of emotion,” Jenkins said.  

The televised debate Monday is the only one being held in Southeastern Massachusetts, as the two men will face off in the primary election on Sept. 1. The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face whoever emerges from the Republican primary between Kevin O’Connor of Dover and Shiva Ayyadurai of Belmont.

Eli Sherman ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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