Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III unleashed their sharpest attacks against one another in an intense debate Monday night, each characterizing the other as ineffective, as the opponents clamor for attention amid national turmoil that has pushed their race to the back of most voters’ minds.
An animated Markey — who sidestepped almost every opportunity to criticize Kennedy at last week’s debate — repeatedly assailed his 39-year-old challenger as not progressive enough to represent Massachusetts in the US Senate. He slammed Kennedy for working for “right wing” Republican District Attorney Michael O’Keefe on Cape Cod after law school, for being slow to embrace Medicare for All, and for failing to mention climate change when he delivered the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018.
“Congressman Kennedy is a progressive in name only,” Markey said.
Kennedy returned fire. The Newton Democrat reminded viewers that Markey opposed busing to desegregate Boston Public Schools when he first came into office, and supported the 1994 crime bill that critics say harmed communities of color and led to mass incarceration.
“You might be known for some things in your time in office, senator. Racial justice, criminal justice is not one of them,” Kennedy said.
The debate marked a notable shift in what has until now been a generally low-key contest. Markey’s more aggressive posture, in particular, signaled that the 73-year-old incumbent — who is generally seen as trailing Kennedy, albeit narrowly — felt compelled to shake up his strategy and start confronting Kennedy head on as the Sept. 1 primary draws closer.
Yet it remains to be seen whether even a sharply more negative campaign can attract voters’ attention at this moment of national turmoil, with a pandemic still raging and protests against police brutality against Black Americans unfolding in communities throughout Massachusetts and the country.
The debate was hosted by Providence-based WPRI 12, which serves New Bedford and other parts of Southeastern Massachusetts, Gannett’s Massachusetts publications, and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Markey, of Malden, set the tone for the debate when he immediately launched an attack on Kennedy’s decision to take a job with someone he framed as the most conservative Republican district attorney that Massachusetts had seen in a generation, calling it evidence of poor judgement and a lack of progressive leadership. What followed was a volley of criticism, interspersed with occasional reminders of just how similar their policy views are.
A speed round of quick-answer questions showed both men support getting rid of the Electoral College, scrapping the filibuster in the Senate, and allowing the Mashpee Wampanoag to build a casino in Taunton. Separately, they both offered support for shifting some funding from police departments to social services, though both stayed away from embracing the “defund” language used by criminal justice activists.
“We have to reallocate the budget . . . we need a rebalancing of the budget between policing and health care and education,” said Markey.
“We have to totally reform the way that we police in this country, and that does mean going into our budgets and reallocating,” said Kennedy.
More broadly, Markey’s new strategy focused on painting Kennedy as too conservative and too inexperienced for the job. He tallied his own legislative record, which he said includes 580 laws on the books, and pointed to major wins such as a 2007 law that he authored to raise fuel economy standards on cars.
“We’re still waiting for a major piece of legislation to be passed by the congressman that merits his promotion to the United States Senate,” Markey quipped.
Kennedy argued that he offers voters a broader, more comprehensive vision of what it means to be a senator representing Massachusetts. He repeatedly implied that Markey sees his job as casting votes and filing “the right bill” that may or may not advance, but said Markey has failed to show he can effectively rally strong coalitions to get real change across the finish line.
To that end, Kennedy praised the Green New Deal legislation that Markey co-wrote with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York and a superstar on the left, but reminded voters it remains a nonbinding resolution that has not passed. He also pointed out that one of Markey’s most high-profile legislative accomplishments — the 2009 bill he co-wrote to cap emissions for several earth-warming greenhouse gases — was opposed by groups such as Greenpeace and labor unions and collapsed in the Senate.
Kennedy touted his efforts campaigning in 20 states for Democratic House candidates in the 2018 midterms, where Democrats flipped the chamber, paving the way for progressive policy priorities to advance and, ultimately, for House Democrats to impeach Trump.
“When you compare my record about going out and trying to actually create the change that is necessary, I was in all those states, and Senator Markey was in zero," Kennedy 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. Kennedy has lost much of that ground, with a Globe poll in early March showing the race within the margin of error.
The close race means both candidates are under pressure to distinguish themselves in the minds of voters — all while most traditional campaigning is curtailed due to the continuing pandemic, and while voters’s minds are occupied with far weightier matters.