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editorial

Is Markey out of touch? Not based on residency

HOME IS where the heart is, unless you serve in Congress. House members are obliged to have two residences, one in Washington, where they are expected to work a full-time job, and one in their home districts. Members balance these housing demands in different ways. Some have spouses and children in the home district, and commute to apartments or — in some cases — frat-like group homes in D.C., to save on rent. Others have their families join them in the Washington area and commute back to the district.

Ed Markey, who was first elected to Congress in 1976, eventually settled with his wife, Susan Blumenthal, into the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase. But he commuted back to his childhood home in Malden, where his aging parents lived. In 2001, after his father died, he bought the home himself. According to Markey’s office, he made 34 round trips between Washington and Malden in the last year alone.

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Now, as Markey runs for the Senate, his rivals are seeking to portray him as a creature of Washington, a man who’s lost touch with average people. It’s a familiar tactic invoked against long-serving representatives. It’s also fair game: Voters may appreciate experience and effectiveness, but they absolutely demand that their elected representatives stay in touch with their needs and attitudes.

While Markey may not spend as much time in Massachusetts as representatives who make it their main family residence, there’s no reason to believe, based on his homestead alone, that he’s lost touch.As a recent article by the Globe’s Noah Bierman and Frank Phillips noted, water bills, newspaper clippings, and other measures all make it clear that Markey spends a moderate amount of time in Malden. There’s no suggestion either that he never stayed in the house, making it a sham residence, or that his pace of visits back to the district was outside the congressional norm.

By bunking in with his parents, while they were alive, he saved some rent money. Arguably, though, living with an elderly couple in a small house in a working-class neighborhood put him closer to the everyday life of his district than most congressmen get through parades and ribbon-cuttings. Supposedly, Joe Moakley, the late dean of the Massachusetts delegation, was referring to Markey when he intoned that, “Voters want a congressman who gets the same tax bills as they do, a guy who feels the pinch when the MWRA’s water bills are skyrocketing.”

In strictly political terms, Moakley was right. But voters are sophisticated enough to judge for themselves whether a representative has lost touch or not. It happens that Blumenthal works in Washington, making it impractical for the couple to have their main residence in Massachusetts. And so Markey did the next best thing — live with his parents and then buy their house after they died.

Anyone who’s ever heard Ed Markey talk knows he hails from north of Boston. Anyone who’s heard him intone on the security issues surrounding the liquefied natural gas plant in Everett, which he exposed by driving up to the gate himself, knows that he tries to maintain a day-to-day connection to the district. Many voters will conclude that this is sufficient, but ultimately all voters can make their own judgments.

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