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OPINION

If Ted Kennedy spent nearly 50 years in Washington, why can’t Ed Markey?

The heart of Joe Kennedy’s argument for unseating Markey is that Massachusetts needs someone young and fresh, with a famous last name.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III, left, elbow-bumps Sen. Edward Markey after their debate for the Massachusetts Democratic primary for senator on Monday.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Associated Press

Ted Kennedy spent 47 years in the Senate. Should he have left sooner?

Asked that question during Monday night’s Senate debate with Senator Edward J. Markey, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III replied: “I think my uncle did a great job. This isn’t about age or seniority.”

But with no real policy differences between these two Democrats — it is.

Markey, 73, has served in Congress since 1976 — first in the House, and then the Senate. Another term would bring him to the half-century mark. That’s apparently fine for a Kennedy, but not a Markey. Or, as Kennedy, 39, put it during the debate: “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 mindset that have brought us the last 50 years.”

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The heart of Kennedy’s argument for unseating Markey is that in these troubling times, Massachusetts needs someone young and fresh, with a famous last name. The counter-argument is that voters should stick with someone who has seen it all and — with the wisdom of experience and hindsight — will continue to take the fight for progressive values to the Senate floor. Unfortunately, Markey didn’t make his case as strongly as he should. For much of the debate, he seemed deflated and a little cranky. And as baby boomers currently stuck on Zoom know, the camera is not our friend.

Markey’s strongest moment came when he talked about bills that he pushed for over 40 years, ending each example with the phrase, “That is my law.” He also stressed his humble, local roots, noting that he’s looking forward to a summer day at Revere Beach and recently prayed in front of the locked doors of the Immaculate Conception Church in Malden. That did not stop Kennedy from raising the ghost of an old charge against Markey, that he and his wife spend most of their time not in Malden, but at their home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. “I think this moment requires stronger leadership and that means a stronger presence,” said Kennedy, who went on to say an unnamed elected official from western Massachusetts told him Markey is never around that part of the state.

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“That is absolutely untrue,” said Markey, rattling off the endorsements he has received from seven mayors in the region, and projects he has delivered on from Washington. However, he was less than enthusiastic when asked if he will produce his travel records.

With the raising of Markey’s travels and residence, Kennedy seems in search of an issue other than age and seniority. Why is he better prepared than Markey for the Senate job? He didn’t say. Why would he do better with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell? He went back to touting his ability to show “better judgment, stronger presence, and stronger leadership.”

Behind that answer, of course, is the heart of Kennedy’s pitch: the family brand.

If this primary is about youth and genealogy, Kennedy wins. It was always going to be up to Markey to make it about something else. And so far, that hasn’t happened. That’s partly because the race was overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and then by the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

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But it’s also because Markey hasn’t really made the best case he has — his age and seniority. Or used the best example he has to make it — Ted Kennedy. Over 47 years in Washington, Ted Kennedy pushed what he called “the cause of his life,” which was health care reform. One of the last things he did before his death from brain cancer at 77 was to submit the Affordable Health Choices Act, which eventually became the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Obama.

Even for a Kennedy, it took a long time to achieve that goal. In fact, it took nearly 50 years.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.