Representative Edward J. Markey was determined to stamp out the scourge of unsolicited advertisements jamming America’s newest technology: the fax machine.
“Our nation’s offices and homes have become targets for a new and costly type of litter — the ‘junk fax,’ ” he warned in 1989.
Back then, the Massachusetts Democrat’s war on spam faxes put him on the cutting edge. These days, it is the kind of quaintly historic concern that Markey’s opponent, Gabriel E. Gomez, has seized on to paint Markey, who was first elected in 1976, as a relic from a bygone era when 8-track tapes were big, disco ruled, and the first “Rocky” movie was taking over box offices.
The skewering has come to dominate Gomez’s campaign for Senate, more than any policy critique. At nearly every campaign stop, the 47-year-old Republican newcomer to the state’s political scene argues that Markey, 66, has been in office too long and is out of touch. It is an attempt to turn what should be one of Markey’s biggest assets — his more than 36 years of experience navigating the halls of Congress — into his biggest liability.
“Mr. Markey, I respect him, but he’s been down there for 37 years,” Gomez said Thursday, at an event in Quincy promoting term limits for Congress. “He’s been down there . . . not only since I was playing Little League baseball, since before Tom Brady was born.”
Gomez’s aides say poking at Markey’s long tenure is designed to lash him to the public’s disdain for Congress.
“There is a sense among independent voters and certain Democratic voters that the problem with longevity in Washington is it leads to abuse of power,” said Gomez’s pollster, Wes Anderson.
But voters in Massachusetts, where there is a tradition of long-serving politicians, including the late Edward M. Kennedy who served in the Senate for 47 years and John F. Kerry who logged 28 years as a senator, are not so easily persuaded by the idea that newer is better.
Anthony DiFonzo, a 77-year-old retired police officer who lives in Brighton, said he saw no need for term limits. He said, for example, that he likes Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has been in office for 20 years, longer than any other mayor in Boston’s history.
“He’s been in office that long, and why shouldn’t he be? People voted for him. That’s the way this country works,” DiFonzo said.
Still, the idea that Congress needs fresh blood clearly resonates with voters who want sweeping change in Washington.
“I wouldn’t want anyone for 36 years — the president, the cardinal of Boston, the president of a company,” said Ed Rodonis, 85, a retired postal worker from Boston. “Give somebody else a chance, see what they can do.”
As the Gomez campaign tries to push that argument, it has not had to look far for moments from Markey’s congressional career that now seem a bit dated.
In the mid-1990s, for example, Markey promoted the V-Chip. A switch mandated for new televisions, it was hailed as a way to let parents screen out violent programming but was almost never used by consumers. In 1989, while pushing the Facsimile Advertising Regulation Act to stop junk faxes, Markey marveled that the fax machine “was an office oddity just two years ago. Now, it is an office necessity for me and millions of others.”
Even the cultural controversy now pecking at Markey’s campaign revolves around a television show that went off the air in 1985. This week, Markey was forced to rescind an invitation to Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on “The Dukes of Hazzard,’’ to play music at a fund-raiser, after it was revealed that Jones is a supporter of the Confederate flag.
In recent days, Markey has appeared to tamp down any suggestion he is out of touch by showcasing his fluency with new technology.
In his latest ad, “Innovation,” he hails the advent of Facebook, Skype, and Google, technology that he says was unleashed by his support for the 1996 Telecommunications Act. As he speaks, images of people using iPads and smartphones flash on screen.
Markey has tried to turn the tables on Gomez, calling his opponent the real throwback because of his opposition to an assault-weapons ban and because Gomez calls himself “personally pro-life.”
“Those aren’t new ideas,” Markey said. “Those are the oldest ideas the Republican Party has ever advocated.”
Gomez’s relentless mocking of Markey’s 1970s political roots could also work to the congressman’s benefit. Some older voters, who turn out in higher numbers, particularly in a low-profile special election, may be annoyed by the suggestion that younger people are more capable public servants.
Markey has also withstood some criticism of his voting record because the issues involved may no longer resonate with voters.
During the Democratic primary, for example, Markey’s rival, Representative Stephen F. Lynch, tried to revive criticism of Markey’s support for NAFTA, even though the 1994 trade agreement was more of a hot-button issue during the Clinton administration.
Lynch also attacked Markey for opposing legalized abortion early in his career. But Markey pointed out that he has been a supporter of abortion rights since he changed his position on the issue in 1983, when he was 36 years old.
In Washington, Markey’s long tenure is an asset, often giving him clout in a place where seniority rules. Though he lacks the stature of a Kennedy or a Kerry, he is well regarded by fellow veterans of Congress.
“You certainly learn your way around, you develop a lot of contacts, not just in Congress, but in the bureaucracy that are immensely helpful to you,” said former representative Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served for 34 years.
But Hamilton pointed out, a bit ruefully, that the decades of service that are so prized in Congress often carry little weight with voters back home. “It’s more of an insiders’ aspect to the job,” he said.