WAKEFIELD — On a sweltering Friday evening, Edward J. Markey walked briskly through a half-empty playground, extending a hand to a few parents as they watched their children romp. “Can I say hello? I’m Congressman Markey. Can I say hello?” he said. He spent only a few seconds with each and did not pause to reminisce with a young mother who said she knew Markey and was from Malden, his hometown.
“Great,” he said, without delving into their shared connection. “So I’d ask for your help,” he said, and moved on. “The election is in 25 days.”
But Markey’s reserve melted away when he spotted a white van emblazoned with decals for Choco Tacos and Cherry Explosions.
“Oh, an ice cream truck!” he exclaimed, as he recalled his college days slinging Beatle Bars and Fudgsicles from a nearly identical truck. “That’s unbelievable. I drove this for four years. Do you have a juice stick?” he said, bounding up to the window.
Markey, the Democratic nominee for Senate, is leading in the polls; has raised more money than his Republican opponent, Gabriel E. Gomez; and, perhaps most importantly, is buoyed by a formidable machine powered by hundreds of loyal activists.
What has been perhaps the biggest reach for Markey in the campaign is connecting with voters, an art he has not practiced seriously in nearly 40 years. Widely criticized for not getting out on the trail enough, his campaign has made an effort to show that he wants to engage with the public in open, unscripted settings. Still, those outings highlight the challenge facing the courtly, quiet congressman, who seems more comfortable talking about telecommunications policy than standing outside a supermarket, casually schmoozing with voters worried about gas prices.
Although he can show warmth and is unfailingly polite, he appears most at ease when he is on a stage speaking about his legislative accomplishments. In that setting, the Democrat who has spent decades making speeches on the House floor emerges as a confident and passionate advocate for his beliefs. But when forced to push beyond the realm of policy into the personal and unpredictable, another, often diffident Markey emerges.
That reticence underscores the Markey campaign’s desire to keep the race focused on policy issues. If the election turns on image and charisma, Democrats worry the congressman could lose votes to Gomez, whose campaign has tried to emphasize his relatability.
Markey can be outgoing in the right places, particularly when he is out of the media glare. He was in his element at a candidates’ forum on issues affecting people with disabilities held at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. Gomez had sent a representative, a Republican activist who spent most of her time discussing Gomez’s support for a line-item veto and term limits rather than issues that directly affect the disabled.
When Markey took the stage, he was greeted with applause.
He paid homage to Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller at Perkins in the late 19th century, and then reached into his 37-year record to cite law after law he has supported to help the disabled. Most of those measures involved technology, his particular area of interest. There was the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1998 law that ensured that telephones work with hearing aids, and a 2010 law he coauthored that means “if you miss ‘Mad Men,’ you can watch it on your laptop with captions,” he said.
His voice rising, Markey declared, “I came here because my philosophy, my reason for being in public office, is actually embodied by these laws.”
His remarks were frequently interrupted by applause, and after he stepped off the stage, students and staff with canes and guide dogs came up to greet him. Many knew the congressman from his work on the 2010 law that made it easier for the blind and deaf to access the Internet.
“You’re the champions. You’re the warriors,” he said, hugging Kim Charlson, the director of the Perkins Library.
“He’s made a career of really involving people with disabilities in a lot of parts of life where people said, ‘Oh, it can’t be done,’ ” Charlson said.
The congressman received a similarly warm reception when he was back in his comfort zone, on a stage, fielding policy questions at a community meeting in Chinatown. After talking about immigration and solar energy, he posed for photos and greeted well-wishers.
“Ladies and gentleman, Julius was just sworn in as an American citizen,” he said, introducing a young man, Julius Xing, to the crowd. “This is his first election ever in the United States, and he’s going to vote for Ed Markey!” The audience cheered and applauded.
Markey’s events are not always so spontaneous. When he arrived at Tito’s, a Latin bakery in Chelsea, the few elderly patrons who had been seated in the booths suddenly burst into applause. It turned out they were not just there to nibble the guava pastries; several said they had received calls from the Markey campaign asking them to show up. It is a technique many campaigns use to guarantee that when candidates walk into public places, friendly faces will be there to greet them.
Throughout the race, Markey has been helped by the well-oiled operation backing him. Drawing on the legions of activists who were enlisted in previous campaigns for Elizabeth Warren and Deval Patrick, Markey aides have organized rallies with thousands of supporters and regularly surround the candidate with devoted followers.
At Tito’s, Markey still greeted every supporter in the bakery, and delivered a stump speech calling for an assault weapons ban and more computers in schools.
The scene was a bit more daunting at Roche Bros. supermarket in West Roxbury. Markey’s job was to mingle with voters as cameras captured him in classic shoe-leather campaign mode. He stood in the entryway, greeting harried shoppers rushing in and out. No matter which way he turned, he seemed to be blocking someone with a fully loaded cart.
“Can I say hello? Congressman Ed Markey. Sorry to be blocking you here,” he said, extending a hand as a woman pushing a cart hurried by. “We’ll move out of here in a second,” he said.
Finally, Markey turned to his spokeswoman, Giselle Barry.
“Giselle, what do you think here?” he said. “We’re creating a bit of a traffic jam.”
Markey decided to end the meet-and-greet, and answer reporters’ questions near the sidewalk, something both he and Gomez dutifully submit to at nearly every stop.
Typically, Markey doesn’t mention Gomez much on the trail, sticking to his talking points about gun control and tax fairness but, on this day, his campaign was concerned that he had been too soft in his response to Gomez’s attacks on his national security record.
Markey seized the chance to hit back. “There’s nothing more cynical than distorting one’s political record, and that’s what he is doing,” he said.
Afterward, he headed into the supermarket, and picked up chicken wings and a lemonade. It was his only stop that day — not unusual for the congressman, whose typical schedule of one or two daily public events has led to criticism from the Gomez campaign that he is only doing a minimal amount of campaigning.
In Wakefield, where Markey greeted families at the playground, the ice cream truck gave the congressman a chance to leave behind all the mudslinging. Even though the Gomez campaign has mocked Markey’s ice-cream work in the 1960s, calling it his only job in the private sector, he clearly cherishes the experience.
“This is the identical truck I drove all those years ago to work my way through school,” he said. “Never changes.”
He handed over a few bills and got a Popsicle.
“I like this; they’ve got pineapple,” he said. “Used to just be orange.”
Then it was time to go to the playground to greet another round of voters. Pineapple pop in hand, he headed toward a cluster of parents as the hot summer sun sloped toward the horizon. “Can I say hello? I’m Congressman Ed Markey,” he said. “Can I say hello?”