BRIGHTON, Mass. (WWLP/SHNS) – In a debate that thrust the marquee primary contest between incumbent U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III back onto the state’s political radar, Markey put his lengthy legislative record up against Kennedy’s call for a more well-rounded senator from Massachusetts.
The televised match-up, hosted by WGBH at its Brighton studios, was the first clash between the two Democratic heavyweights and a chance for the two men to leave an early impression with voters in their 2020 race.
Sen. Markey told 22News, “I had an opportunity here to tell the people of Massachusetts the things that I’m doing in the era of Donald Trump. To fight him and to win.”
Rep. Kennedy added, “I am running this campaign because I believe I have something to offer for these times and in this moment, and I’ll continue to make that case to the voters.”
While Markey spent much of the night highlighting a record that includes filing the Green New Deal and passing numerous laws related to pollution, Alzheimer’s research and gun control, Kennedy was challenged to articulate a reason for why Markey, after his decades of service, should be replaced.
“Yes, filing the right legislation and voting the right way is a critical part of this job, but if there’s one lesson from today’s Washington, D.C., it’s that this is about power and if we’re serious about putting the people and the causes that we care about first, you have to go out there and you have to take it,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, both during and after the debate, suggested that Markey should be a more present figure in Massachusetts so that people know their senator is fighting for them. He also said that a Senate seat in Massachusetts should be used more effectively to help elect Democrats around the country. In his seven years in Congress, Kennedy has campaigned and raised money for many candidates outside of Massachusetts.
Markey has often faced criticism for becoming a creature of Washington but went out of his way Tuesday night to highlight his Malden roots and efforts to organize locally around climate change and immigration. He also said his legislative successes are proof that he has been and will continue to be an effective leader.
“On the big issues of today, the challenges of today, I’ve been leading not just with legislation that passes, but protects the people in Massachusetts and the whole country,” Markey said.
Markey more than once mentioned the name of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a young, progressive New York legislator with whom he sponsored the Green New Deal, as a counterweight to the idea that it might be time for a new generation of leadership. On many of the issues debated Tuesday night, both Markey and Kennedy agreed.
They both said they would support gradually phasing out private insurance to move toward a “Medicare for All” system and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan as fast and as safely possible, and discussed their opposition to Enbridge building a natural gas compressor station in Weymouth. The two did, however, clash on foreign policy.
Kennedy was particularly critical of Markey’s votes to authorize the use of military force in Iraq in 2003 and his present vote in committee a decade later in 2013 on a resolution authorizing military action in Syria.
Markey said he voted present on Syria because the Obama administration had not provided all the information he needed to make a decision. He called the ultimate release of the information by the administration a “disinfectant” that led to the withdrawal of the resolution.
“A present vote is not a disinfectant. It’s hard for me to understand when a present vote is going to be a profile in courage,” Kennedy said, making the only allusion of the night to his dynastic political heritage.
“Profile in Courage” was the title of his great uncle John F. Kennedy’s memoir.
Markey said that he regretted his Iraq war vote, which he blamed on being lied to by President George W. Bush.
“It was a mistake,” Markey said, noting the support his campaign has received from groups like Mass Peace Action.
Kennedy’s famous last name was not discussed directly, but was never far from the surface either, including the first question from moderator Jim Braude who asked Kennedy to respond to naysayers who have accused him of being “opportunistic.” Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said she was disappointed that the primary was happening at all, calling it a race about “privilege versus people.”
Rollins was at the debate as a surrogate for Markey’s campaign and said she thought Democrats would be better served devoting their time, energy and financial resources to defeating President Donald Trump in November and flipping the Senate to Democratic control.
“Right now, I don’t feel like the question has been answered as to why Senator Markey is being challenged,” Rollins said.
The debate had the two Democrats seated at a single table in front of a studio audience. Over the course of an hour, both Markey and Kennedy were challenged to square their opposition to a natural gas compression station in Weymouth with Markey accepting contributions from Blackrock, an investor in the project, and Kennedy’s holding of fossil fuel stocks.
“I vote my convictions and from my perspective, I’ve taken on that company,” Markey said.
Kennedy also said there was no evidence that he has ever cast a vote based on his financial portfolio. “You can’t find it,” he said.
Markey and Kennedy also took on Trump, though neither would say they believed the president to be mentally unfit for office.
“What I will say is his actions alone disqualify him from office,” Kennedy said.
Asked if he would entertain a deal that was once on the table from Trump that included money for the president’s proposed border wall in exchange for protecting so-called Dreamers — those brought to the United States as children by their undocumented parents, Markey said he wouldn’t.
“Here’s what I would trade. I would trade presidents,” Markey said.
Before the debate, Kennedy released a video repeating his call for Markey to take the same type of pledge the senator took in his campaigns in 2013 and 2014 to limit outside money in the race.
Markey has resisted signing a blanket pledge disavowing spending on the race by outside super PACs and advocacy groups, urging instead an agreement that allows positive messaging by advocates, including local environmental groups like the Environmental League of Massachusetts. The issue came up again during the debate, with Markey reiterating that he had offered an updated pledge for 2020 that would allow positive, progressive voices to be heard.
Kennedy criticized Markey for opening the door, he said, to “dark money,” and scoffed at Markey’s suggestion that the media would police what messages were positive versus negative. Rep. Jon Santiago, a freshman Boston Democrat, said Kennedy would be “the senator” Massachusetts deserves. Santiago served with Kennedy as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic.
“I’ve known Joe since he was just a red-headed kid in the Dominican Republic trying to do the people’s work and that’s what he’s been committed to doing since day one and that’s what this campaign is about,” Santiago said after the debate.
“We don’t need a senator who’s just going to be good and vote along party lines. We need someone who’s going to be a leader, who’s going to be bold and brave,” Santiago said.
Markey, 73, has been in Congress since late 1976. He was first elected to the Senate in 2013 to replace John Kerry, who stepped down to become secretary of state. He won his first full term a year later.
Kennedy, 39, worked as an assistant district attorney before running for Congress in 2012 to succeed the retiring Barney Frank. He upended the Democratic political establishment in September when he announced that he had decided to challenge Markey in this year’s primary, forcing supporters of both men to choose sides.
Before he even launched his campaign, Kennedy led the incumbent in some early polling and out-raised Markey by $1 million in the last quarter of 2019. Since Kennedy’s launch, however, many Democratic officials and progressive groups have rallied around Markey.
Hours before the debate, large and raucous crowds of supporters of both candidates gathered outside the studio amidst a steadily falling rain to make noise and draw attention to the debate. The Teamsters Local 25 brought a tractor-trailer to showcase the union’s support for Kennedy.