On a journalistic whim, without notifying anyone, I took a ride to 7 Townsend Street in Malden. By chance, Senator Edward J. Markey was standing in the driveway.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. Quickly deducing the answer — that I was checking for signs of his existence at an address he officially calls home, but others question as his actual residence — he happily declared: “Welcome to the compound!”
In case you missed it, that was a gentle jab at his Democratic primary opponent, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, whose family is associated with a famous compound in Hyannis Port, and who is trying to make “presence” in Massachusetts a subliminal campaign issue.
“Senator Markey isn’t here enough. He isn’t in Massachusetts enough," Kennedy said during one debate. He has also criticized Markey’s “absent leadership” and questioned how much time he spends in Western Massachusetts. In response, Markey typically references the many mayors from across Massachusetts who support him. “The mayors endorse because you’re there. Because what they need, I have delivered,” he said on Townsend Street.
Of course, finding Markey in Malden at 5:45 p.m. on a Tuesday in the midst of a tough reelection fight doesn’t mean he lives there. His residence has been a recurring issue, mostly with Republicans, because he also owns a more luxurious home in Chevy Chase, Md. In 2014, a Globe review of Markey’s residency found “mixed results.” His Malden water bills suggested infrequent service, and House records showed he and his staff spent less on travel to Massachusetts than others in the delegation. Then and now, local officials vouched for Markey’s community connections. And Markey still insists the Malden house in which he grew up is his home.
“I love my street. I love my neighborhood. I love my neighbors,” he said, calling out a “How ya doing?” to one man walking a dog and to another who waved to him from across the narrow street. “There’s two families of Haitians. There’s an Asian family,” he explains, describing an ethnic mix that — to him — shows both the change and constancy of Malden as a melting pot of immigrant ambition, where the gauziest dreams grow on the plainest of streets. He talks about a young neighbor who got a $16,000 college scholarship to play football — which wasn’t enough to cover the cost of tuition. “I take the fight these people have to make every day very personally," he said.
He’s vague, however, when asked how much time he spends living out of state. “Every House and Senate member lives in two cities," said Markey, who has declined to release travel records.
Yet Kennedy’s questioning of Markey’s real home is also ironic; his grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, was called a carpetbagger when he ran for Senate in New York, where he was neither a registered voter nor a resident. For that 1964 campaign, Robert F. Kennedy leased a 25 room Dutch Colonial house in Glen Cove, N.Y.‚ “staging his family there for press events but seldom staying himself,” wrote Larry Tye in “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.” In the book, Tye also refers to that Glen Cove house as a “pretend home.” RFK won that race in a landslide and, as senator, had an apartment in Manhattan. But the family residence was Hickory Hill, in McLean, Va. As Tye writes, “Bobby’s years as a senator gave him his most relaxed time with the children and the life he relished at Hickory Hill.” During his Senate tenure, RFK was known for his travels around the country and the world and the causes he championed, such as his fight against poverty and opposition to the Vietnam war — not for time clocked in Buffalo. In 1968, RFK ran for president, a quest that ended tragically with his assassination.
Markey is not Robert F. Kennedy. Nor is he Ted Kennedy, who, like Markey spent more than 40 years in Washington representing Massachusetts. They had “presence” that Joe Kennedy is trying to conjure in his campaign to unseat Markey. For voters, “presence” is not just a matter of where Markey sleeps, but what they believe he delivers for Massachusetts.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.