ATTLEBORO, Mass. (WPRI) — Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy on Sunday pushed back at critics who say there is no rationale for his challenge to U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, suggesting the longtime lawmaker has lost touch with Massachusetts voters and isn’t cut out for the Trump era.
Massachusetts needs a senator who will “focus at home,” Kennedy told reporters on the second day of his insurgent Senate campaign.
“You make sure you’re going to every community across our commonwealth, that people are seeing you, that they are hearing you, that you are accessible and available to our residents so that they feel like their voices, their concerns, are being absorbed by a senator and therefore informing policies down in Washington, D.C,” he said.
From there Kennedy ticked off a lengthy list of changes he supports that he said have not gotten Markey’s backing: abolishing the Electoral College, ending the Senate filibuster, setting term limits for U.S. Supreme Court justices, decriminalizing marijuana, and eliminating student loan debt for most borrowers. He also noted that Markey continues to accept corporate PAC money, while he recently pledged to stop doing so.
“I believe that there needs to be a broad series of economic reforms that allow for middle class jobs to provide a middle class lifestyle,” Kennedy said. “He’s been largely silent on those issues.”
He added, “I think there’s a lot of areas of difference here, and I look forward to drawing those out over the course of the campaign.”
The 38-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy spoke as he wrapped up a whirlwind weekend campaign swing across the Bay State, finishing back in the 4th Congressional District that he has represented since 2012 to thank dozens of supporters gathered at the Attleboro Arts Museum.
“It has been an incredible past — whatever many hours,” Kennedy quipped to laughter and applause as his weary staff looked on. He stood in front of a sign that could have been used during the successful Senate bids of his great-uncles John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy: “Kennedy. Massachusetts.”
State Sen. Paul Feeney — an early supporter in Kennedy’s first congressional race who is now likely to run for his open House seat — took a less-than-subtle dig of his own at Markey in his introductory speech, joking to the crowd that Kennedy “doesn’t need GPS to find Attleboro!”
Mara Dolan, a spokesperson for Markey, said the senator “has made a number of visits to Attleboro in the past couple of years.” His most recent visit was last October, when Markey campaigned for state Rep. Jim Hawkins — on the same day Markey also visited Foxboro so he could campaign for Feeney’s re-election, she said.
Indeed, Kennedy’s Attleboro visit offered an illustration of how his unexpected decision to challenge Markey is dividing the Democratic Party. The city’s most prominent Democrat — Mayor Paul Heroux, a former state representative — has endorsed Markey for re-election and was not in attendance at Kennedy’s campaign event.
“I like Joe and I think he’s a good person, but I think that Senator Markey based on his record deserves another term,” Heroux told WPRI 12. (The pair have their own history: Heroux tried running for the same House seat as Kennedy in 2012, but bowed out when it was clear the latter would win.)
Markey’s campaign is banking in part on his deep support among environmental activists, particularly since he partnered with New York Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez on the Green New Deal. Just before Kennedy formally announced his bid on Saturday, Markey challenged him to a debate over climate change the week after November’s statewide municipal elections; Kennedy has not agreed.
“The senator has been a leader on issues like the Green New Deal, and I was a co-sponsor of that bill from the very beginning,” Kennedy told reporters Sunday. “It’s incredibly important.”
But, he continued, “So are issues like like affordable housing, transit, investments in public infrastructure, jobs that allow you to provide for your family, a humane immigration reform, economic justice and civil liberties — all of those issues have to be at the fore, including reforms to clean up our process.”
The age gap between Kennedy, who will turn 40 just before the 2020 election, and Markey, who will be 74 and nearing a half-century in Congress, may be the most obvious contrast between the two liberal Democrats. Liz Beretta-Perik, a top Democratic donor and fundraiser, said she is backing Kennedy in part to lower the average age in the Senate.
“We need some youth in the Senate,” Beretta-Perik told WPRI 12, “and some powerful youth.”
Yet Kennedy himself continues to insist that age is not the reason for his run. He frequently points out that he is a strong supporter of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is 70, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who turns 80 in March.
“This is not about age,” he said. “This is about I think values, vision, leadership, energy that’s necessary to actually make these priorities come to pass. … Put my record up against Senator Markey’s. I stand by mine.”
And Kennedy bristled at the suggestion he should have waited his turn rather than challenge Markey now. He cited a host of Trump-era controversies from the migrant crisis to the current contretemps over the president allegedly bullying Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
“If not now, if it is not OK to run for office now, what else do you need? What else is going to make it OK?” Kennedy asked. “If we are not in a moment of urgency and crisis today, how much worse does it have to get?”
“Our system’s broken, and it needs a systemic overhaul right now,” he added.
Organized labor is likely to play a key role in the Senate clash. Kennedy’s campaign rolled out early endorsements Sunday from three labor unions: IBEW Local 103, Teamsters Local 25 and the Massachusetts State Council of Machinists. At the Attleboro event, Kennedy was flanked by Peter Derouen, political director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 791, which represents Shaw’s workers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“The time for a new wave and new generation of leadership in Washington, D.C., is right now — not next year, not six years down the road, but now,” the IBEW said in a statement.
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, wrote Friday that she sees the primary as a toss-up.
“There is nothing in Markey’s résumé that makes him especially vulnerable,” she wrote. “He hasn’t had any ethics problems and by all accounts spends enough time at home and is attentive to constituent service. And, Markey is certainly progressive enough.”
Duffy chalked Kennedy’s decision up to “ambition and impatience.”
“In the end, Kennedy probably runs as a young and energetic candidate who will bring new ideas to solve the nation’s problems,” she wrote. “It will be hard for Kennedy to portray Markey as a career politician given his family’s own political legacy, but he may try. Markey can only run on his record, especially where he is to Kennedy’s left, and remind voters what he’s done for them in his 40+ years in Congress.”
Two other challengers, Shannon Liss-Riordan and Steve Pemberton, have also announced they will run against Markey.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook