ED MARKEY’S face lights up. Working the small crowd at George’s Cafe here, he has just spotted two men he served with at the State House when first breaking into Massachusetts politics — 40 years ago.
“I still feel young,” he says as the three chat. And in this group, the 66-year-old congressman is, comparatively speaking. One of his erstwhile colleagues is 81, the other 73.
He updates them on his Senate campaign.
“It is going great,” he says. “I am ahead by a pretty good margin.”
The Markey camp feels confident about that, as it does about what Markey brings to the race: a reputation as a committed progressive and a long record of leadership and accomplishment on issues ranging from judicial reform to telecommunications to the environment to clean energy to health care to consumer protection.
In the House, he’s better liked and more highly regarded than his Democratic primary rival, Stephen Lynch, a tightly wound lawmaker whose brusque manner sometimes alienates colleagues.
Yet at times, Markey, who won a state rep seat at 26 and went to Congress at 30, seems like a throwback to another era. His oratory can veer from simple long-windedness into the bureaucratically baroque. And then there’s his cadence, which is so methodical that his sentences don’t flow in a conversational stream, but rather seem constructed syllable by plodding syllable.
For a sense of what it’s like to listen, imagine this (real-life) Markey remark delivered by the National Weather Service’s computer-generated voice: “And so . . . I thank all of you . . . for being here. I thank you for . . . being willing to come and to hear . . . what it is that I am . . . going to attempt to achieve . . . in the course of . . . a term in the United States Senate if I am fortunate enough to win.”
Asked for the central reason voters should send him to the Senate, Markey tells me: “I am going to run in order to make it possible for Massachusetts, in partnership with Elizabeth Warren, to maximize its effectiveness in advancing an agenda that can become the law of our country.”
Now there’s an elevator pitch — if, that is, one happens to be ascending the Empire State Building.
Markey’s issues are pretty much standard progressive fare: Action on climate change. Tougher gun laws. Immigration reform, with a path to citizenship. Equal pay for women. Clean energy. Protecting abortion rights and the rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. And passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The other early campaign trait that stands out is Markey’s hyper-caution. Get him outside his particular bundle of issues, and he’s circumspect to the point of being nonresponsive.
Ask, for example, what his preferred solution is to avoid the upcoming budget “sequester,” and Markey replies that the Republican stance “is a non-starter for negotiations.” But does he agree with fiscal experts who say that, in the longer term, entitlements will have to be trimmed? “Again, I don’t think that we can have a negotiation that can be conducted unless the Republicans are willing to come to the table.” Yes, but what does Markey think needs to be done, long-term, to solve the problem? “At a point in time in which we have willing negotiating partners, we could have a discussion about all the elements of the grand deal.” Arrgh! But what does he believe those elements should be? “Well, again, it has to be part of a negotiation.”
Here’s another index of that caution. Ask what separates him from Lynch, or why voters should choose him over his rival, and Markey repeatedly returns to this refrain: “I am running on my record.” Was he surprised when Lynch, whose antiabortion stance has been a hallmark of his career, executed a recent flip-flop to take what is in essence a moderate abortion-rights position? “I am running on my own pro-choice career record.”
What you’re left with, then, is an odd contradiction: Markey is an accomplished, substantive, energetic congressman with a proven record of effectiveness. But at least in the early going, he’s running a careful, bland front-runner’s campaign for the US Senate.