The Massachusetts Senate primary contest between Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III finally gave off some heat Tuesday night as the two Democrats met in their first televised debate, with Markey trumpeting his long progressive record on issues from the environment to gun control, and Kennedy pitching himself as an energetic new leader at a moment of national crisis.
One of the most pointed moments in the hourlong studio debate hosted by WGBH came as Kennedy criticized two votes in Markey’s long foreign policy record. He took aim at the Malden Democrat’s 2002 vote as a representative to authorize the use of force in Iraq and his 2013 decision as a senator to vote “present” in committee on a resolution to give President Barack Obama the authority to use military force in Syria.
Markey — one of 81 Democrats in the House who supported the Iraq war resolution — said that he regretted voting for it.
“George Bush lied. Donald Rumsfeld lied. Dick Cheney lied to the American people about the presence of nuclear weapons in Iraq,” Markey said. “I’m still angry about that lie to the American people.”
Markey floundered a bit as he sought to defend his “present” vote in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2013. The vote took place less than two months after Markey was sworn in to the Senate, and was the highest-profile issue to come his way at that point. He was the only senator to cast a noncommittal vote.
“Very simply, there was a rush to judgment. There was an attempt to have a vote that was forced without complete information being given to me,” Markey said. He said he demanded information from the administration that helped other senators weigh the potential consequences properly, suggesting he deserved credit for helping to scuttle the resolution, which never got a vote on the Senate floor.
“On a matter of war and peace, the senator voted present, and I think that record speaks for itself,” Kennedy said. When Markey argued his request for more details helped bring sunlight to the issue, Kennedy interjected that he found it hard to see voting “present” as “a profile in courage.”
The sharper tone of the debate was notable because so far the primary contest has been largely fireworks-free, even though the 39-year-old Kennedy’s surprise challenge to Markey unsettled and divided the state’s Democratic Party establishment. Early polls showed Kennedy leading the 73-year-old incumbent, and Kennedy outraised Markey in the final three months of last year by about $1 million. The primary will take place Sept. 1.
The two also sparred over the issue of money in politics, specifically whether outside groups should be able to spend money in their race. Soon after jumping into the contest, Kennedy called on Markey to sign a so-called People’s Pledge to limit outside spending, virtually the same pledge Markey supported back in 2013 when he was the front-runner in the race for the Senate seat he now holds.
Markey has declined to sign on to the same pledge this time around, instead proposing a watered-down pledge that would allow for some third-party advertising in the race, rather than ask all groups to abstain.
“I’ve introduced a progressive people’s pledge for 2020, so that we deal with the era of Donald Trump,” Markey said Tuesday when asked about the issue. “We should have a pledge that keeps out dark money, that keeps out negative voices, but we should welcome positive voices."
“That is an exception that swallows the rule,” said Kennedy, who has a strong nationwide fund-raising network at his back. He questioned who would get to decide what constitutes a permissible progressive cause under Markey’s proposal.
Markey is supported by environmental activists who are working to start a super PAC to support his candidacy.
At other times, the debate highlighted how little separates the two candidates. Both railed against President Trump, and both pledged their support for Medicare for All and relieving student borrowers of unsustainable debt.
Both offered heartfelt anecdotes about the fight they have waged against Trump’s immigration policies. Kennedy spoke about spending his first Father’s Day after the birth of his son at the US-Mexico border protesting family separations; Markey spoke of how he successfully fought the Trump administration’s efforts to “deport kids with cancer” when last year it sought to end “deferred action” — a policy that allows some immigrants to remain in the United States legally while they receive medical care for complex conditions.
A key question hanging over Kennedy’s candidacy is what his rationale is for trying to unseat a well-liked Democratic incumbent with a strong progressive record. Pressed on this, Kennedy — who at times appeared nervous — continued to offer more of an implied argument than an outright critique of Markey.
“This is not about filing the right bill and voting the right way,” said Kennedy, repeating the same phrase throughout the night. “We have to do everything we can to restore power to the Democratic Party across the entire country.”
In his opening remarks, Kennedy vowed to be “a constant presence in Massachusetts,” a comment that appeared to be a glancing reference to the repeated accusations Markey has faced that his main residence is not in Malden as he claims, but rather in Chevy Chase, Md.
Speaking afterward to reporters, Kennedy suggested he would be able to connect with voters in the same visceral way that the night’s common enemy, Trump, can. “Policy matters, but in this moment, when so much is at stake, you gotta have folks that are doing everything they possibly can to help navigate our way through it,” he said.
Markey for his part, appeared intent on demonstrating that he is an effective leader on the challenges of the day, and not just on his signature issue of climate change — though it took him less than 20 seconds into his first answer of the night to name drop Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the liberal firebrand with whom Markey has partnered on the so-called Green New Deal.
“Fossil fuel industry? I beat ‘em. The gun lobby? I beat ‘em,” Markey said, touting recent legislation that funds research on gun violence at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first time since 1996 Congress has successfully passed money for such research.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Markey drew a distinction between Kennedy’s claims and his record: “The difference is, I have fought and I have led and I have delivered. My bills are the law. My bills are what changes the debate in our country.”
Markey also used the debate to highlight his humble upbringing in Malden, sprinkling in references to his milkman father and other blue-collar bona fides, an implicit contrast to Kennedy’s far more privileged background as the scion of the country’s most famous political dynasty.
Talking about the need to improve public transportation in the state, Markey recalled how his father relied on a bus to get him to his delivery truck at the Hood Milk Co.
“When the T doesn’t work, when we don’t have the bus lines that go out into the communities which need it, then we have a big problem,” Markey said. "I lived it in my own house. My father got up to get on that bus every day.”