Two genuinely decent men and upstanding elected officials got really unpleasant in Tuesday night’s U.S. Senate debate. Four-term Congressman Joe Kennedy III had a more polished and coherent presentation than in previous debates. Four decade former Congressman, now Senator Ed Markey, after a slow start, finished strong. But the whole event just made me want this race over with. It’s not clear that any voter’s mind would be made up or changed by an encounter that so obnoxiously shouted “politics ain’t beanbag.”
Kennedy, who for months has had difficulty explaining his run against Markey, made clear he thinks Markey is too old and too passive. Kennedy’s new slogan is, “He’ll vote for it. I’ll fight for it.” To which Markey responded with his ongoing national leadership on the Green New Deal and accomplishments on reducing carbon emissions, his primacy on telecommunications and providing internet access to all, and his joining Bernie Sanders three years ago on Medicare for All (well before Kennedy).
The entire first half of the debate focused on racial justice, with Kennedy hammering on Markey’s tepid response to the 2010 N.Y. police killing of D.J. Henry of Easton, MA as emblematic of what he said are Markey’s shortcoming on issues of racial justice. He also hammered away at Markey’s failure to support busing to integrate Boston’s schools. Markey countered by noting that was more than 40 years ago, and that he showed his values by taking on Democratic Party leaders in 1973 to create a black Senate district in Massachusetts. That first Black senator was Bill Owens, who has endorsed Markey’s race for reelection. Markey has worked closely on racial justice issues with Senators Cory Booker, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. But for some reason Markey seemed on his heels for the first 30 minutes of the WBZ encounter.
Kennedy both faulted Markey for not spending enough time in Massachusetts and also chided him for not traveling outside Massachusetts to support other progressive candidates. Kennedy seemed to blame the Senator for the national decline of unions and the decades-long rise of economic insecurity that, he said, “happened on Markey’s watch.” Markey repeatedly spoke of fighting on the floor of the GOP-controlled Senate for child care, better education, affordable housing and other issues disproportionately affecting people of color.
Markey had a strong second half of the debate, reminding people of the leadership he has demonstrated helping to build national movements on climate change, health care for all, internet access for all income groups. Though the central theme of Kennedy’s campaign is his call for new leadership, Markey’s progressive leadership, especially on climate change, was cited by moveon.org in endorsing Markey the day of this nasty debate.
Responding to a pro-Kennedy group’s recent ad blitz, Markey hit Kennedy hard on the negative tone of the New Leadership Super Pac, repeatedly pressing the Congressman about his father’s and twin brother’s roles in that hardball effort. Kennedy said he didn’t know anything about their involvement in what is legally required to be an independent organization. Kennedy’s father, former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, reportedly has close to $3 million in his old campaign war chest, left over from 1999, which he could legally transfer to the Super Pac. Markey pressed candidate Kennedy unsuccessfully to tell his father and the Super Pac to halt the attacks ads, which, in one case, seems to mimic Trump’s ageist “sleepy Joe” attacks on Joe Biden.
As I have said before, this is an unnecessary and wasteful race. The human talent and millions of dollars being expended in this and on the race to replace Kennedy in the 4th district would have been far better spent in key Senate races elsewhere, like Sara Gideon’s against Susan Collins in Maine, Mark Kelly’s against Martha McSally in Arizona and Amy McGrath’s against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
Joe Kennedy III has a bright future ahead of him, and not just because he is the scion of an illustrious Massachusetts political family. He has a lot to offer, just not at this time, in this race. The overarching critical issue of our time, which long-term potentially overwhelms all the other issues, is climate change. If the Democrats take back the Senate, Markey is prepared to lead on this issue more than any other member of that body. As AOC said in a Markey endorsement ad, “It’s not your age that counts. It’s the age of your ideas.” Unlike other Democratic primary challenges in recent years, on the leading issues of today, the progressive choice is the incumbent.
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