In the midst of mounting national crises, Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III reemerged on the debate stage Monday, their sights trained on seemingly different targets: Kennedy going after the incumbent he’s trying to unseat and Markey going after President Trump.
Kennedy, 39, leaned into the generational divide between himself and the 73-year-old Markey, arguing that the state needs to move on from the “same folks” who’ve made decisions the last 50 years. Markey, for the most part, sidestepped attacks from his opponent and focused his fire on Trump.
Markey repeatedly cited his pushback against Trump, denouncing the Republican as racist and negligent in his response to the coronavirus pandemic. He also offered a laundry list of ways he said he’s led on the virus response and helped specific communities in the state, from Longmeadow to the state’s coastal communities.
The competing talking points ran through the candidates’ first forum in more than three months. The debate at the Western Mass News studios in Springfield marked a return to the public sphere for a race considered one of the country’s hottest Senate primaries before the dual health and economic crises of the coronavirus and nationwide protests sparked by the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis.
Despite some fireworks, the debate again underscored the tremendous similarity between their policy platforms and ideological outlook. They both believe that Medicare-for-All, not an expanded Affordable Care Act, is the right approach to improving health care and that state-run care facilities such as the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke need more federal oversight.
Both boasted of work they’ve done to help Black and Latino communities ravaged by the pandemic.
Both support the Green New Deal, though Markey made sure to remind viewers that he wrote the legislative version with New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a superstar on the left.
And they both said their colleague, Senator Elizabeth Warren, would be a great running mate for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
But they differ widely in their pitch for Massachusetts’s junior Senate seat. For Markey, it’s 40-plus years of introducing legislation, then pushing bills to passage, illustrated by a string of examples he punctuated with the phrase Monday: “That is my law."
And the senator, time and time again, shifted his responses to rebuke Trump.
Asked if there should be more oversight of state-run veterans’ homes, Markey weaved into his response a prediction that Trump will bear a “historical burden” for his coronavirus response. Prodded about better preparing nursing homes hit hard by the pandemic, Markey began his answer by recounting how he called on Trump to name a coronavirus “czar” in January.
At one point early in the debate, Markey was asked why he’s better prepared than Kennedy to lead the state and responded, in part, by lobbing criticisms of Trump, saying the president wants to “make America hate again.”
“But Senator Markey,” panelist Janet Wu of WCVB-TV responded, “you’re running against Congressman Kennedy, you’re not running against Trump right now.” She then repeated the question.
For Kennedy, his main message was a plea for a new perspective underwritten by the racial unrest that’s rocked the country in recent days.
“This moment requires stronger presence, better judgment, and clearer vision than Senator Markey has delivered,” Kennedy said early in the night.
He said the country can’t revert to the pre-coronavirus normal.
“This moment calls for us to do something different . . . to build something better and bigger, and we will not do that with the same folks and the same mind-set that have brought us the last 50 years, because if there’s a lesson from this crisis, it’s that that normal was broken,” he said.
Kennedy entered the race eight months ago with a 14-point lead over Markey in a head-to-head matchup, according to a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll a few weeks before he officially declared. The challenger has lost much of that ground, with a Globe poll in early March showing the race within the margin of error.
His aggressive debate performance, coming after recent weeks of sharper attacks against Markey, suggests Kennedy believes he needs to offer voters a more compelling reason than he has to date for why they should pick him over the incumbent.
In one of the sharpest exchanges of the night, Markey pushed back on questioning from Wu that implied he doesn’t spend much time in Western Massachusetts, or the state generally, when he isn’t running for reelection. Markey has faced accusations he actually lives primarily in a house he owns with his wife in Maryland, not his childhood house in Malden.
“I come to Western Massachusetts,” Markey said, noting he has scored the endorsement of seven mayors in the region. “I take care of the problems of the people of Massachusetts. I stand up and deliver for them.”
Kennedy piled on, saying when he spoke with an unnamed elected official in the region, the official told Kennedy he had been seen in Western Massachusetts more than Markey over the past year. “I was here — twice,” Kennedy said.
“That is absolutely untrue,” Markey charged. “If it was true, then all these mayors would not have endorsed me. I am there for them."
Markey, however, did not exactly embrace Wu’s suggestion that he release all of his travel records to prove how much time he has spent in the state. “I will work with you, Janet, in order to get you the information which you want,” he said after she pressed him a second time.
The forum, initially scheduled for March, was the first time they had squared off since February and represented, in many respects, the most high-profile event on their campaign calendar since.
The setting itself marked a small step toward normalcy. Both candidates appeared live in studio, sizing each other up from 12 feet apart.
And neither managed to avoid some stock political chestnuts when pressed to reveal their softer side.
What would you do with a day off this summer? “Whatever my wife wants me to do!” said Kennedy.
Asked to identify his worst trait, Markey claimed his obsession with all Boston sports. Then went on at length about it.
“We’re genetically hard-wired in Massachusetts!” he declared.
Still, it remains to be seen whether even this more intense debate will break through the public consciousness with protests and civil unrest unfolding every night across the country.
That continual upheaval of daily life, in one form or another, has now stretched for months, leaving little oxygen for the political horse race that would otherwise be dominating cable news networks and media coverage.
Monday night was no exception. Less than an hour before Markey and Kennedy took the debate stage, cable news was jammed with images of heavily armed members of law enforcement carrying riot shields as they faced down a huge crowd of chanting protesters on the White House’s doorstep.
Officers fired tear gas and fired rubber bullets at the peaceful protesters gathered in Lafayette Park, seeking to disperse the crowd ahead of Trump’s remarks on the nationwide unrest, the explosions audible from the Rose Garden.
In those remarks, Trump labeled the violent protests that have unfolded around the country “acts of domestic terror," and vowed to use all federal resources at his disposal “to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans.”
If a city or state fails to quell the violence, Trump said, he would deploy the US military “and quickly solve the problem for them.”
For anyone who switched from Trump to the Markey-Kennedy debate, it set up a stark dichotomy. Both Markey and Kennedy acknowledged they benefit from white male privilege and can’t truly comprehend the challenges that people of color experience.
Yet they both spoke with empathy about the anger and lifetimes of injustice they saw motivating the protesters, who have been largely peaceful.
“Windows may be broken, materials may be taken, but what that anger stems from is systemic injustice that has cost the lives of George Floyd” and others “and nothing will bring those lives back," said Kennedy.
“They want justice,” said Markey. “When President Trump calls those protesters scum, he just shows what a racist he is. That’s not who those protesters are.”