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Joe Kennedy III, campaigning virtually in a tightening race

Joseph Kennedy lll attended a  Mass for Racial Healing celebrated by Cardinal Sean O'Malley on Castle Island Saturday.
Joseph Kennedy lll attended a Mass for Racial Healing celebrated by Cardinal Sean O'Malley on Castle Island Saturday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As he makes his bid for US Senate amid the most sweeping racial tumult of a generation, Joe Kennedy III is spending a lot of time off to the side, listening.

Whether at a rally at Franklin Park, or in Chelsea or Springfield, Kennedy has been a presence but not a vocal one. That’s the nature of running in a time no one saw coming, in a contest framed by issues that have come roaring to the forefront in recent weeks.

Like every campaign in 2020, the race between Kennedy and incumbent Edward Markey has been transformed. First by a virus that made traditional campaigning all but impossible, and now by a sweeping call for change whose political ramifications are far from clear.

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To my mind, the loss of the traditional campaign trail has neutralized Kennedy’s greatest relative strength against Markey — his gift for connecting with voters one on one.

“I would not have wanted to run a race the way we’ve had to run this race,” Kennedy said last week. “It's hard to run a retail campaign when you can’t be out there shaking hands and being present for a really emotional moment for our country.”

Kennedy has been the favorite since he announced plans to wage a primary campaign against Markey, the Malden Democrat first elected to Congress in 1976. But the campaign hasn’t quite caught fire in the way people expected. Kennedy has been knocked for runaway ambition in running against an incumbent with whom he has few ideological differences. Markey, meanwhile, has been busy fending off accusations that he is a Beltway denizen who has become a tourist in his own state. (He seems to have taken to anchoring himself at home in Malden, just in case anyone comes looking for him.)

Some pundits have made sport of attacking Kennedy for his supposed inability to explain why he’s running. I’m a dissenter from that: For the life of me, I don’t see what’s heretical about running against Markey. He’s been a fine legislator, but to paraphrase Scott Brown — a man I’m usually not given to quoting — it’s not Ed Markey’s seat, it’s the people’s seat.

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Obviously, the huge issue of the moment is the outpouring of passion for racial and social justice. It’s an issue that’s taken hold of our TV screens and our streets.

As Kennedy freely admits, it’s an awkward subject of debate between two white men, each in his own way an embodiment of privilege.

But Kennedy makes the claim that his is the stronger voice for change. He opened his campaign headquarters in Roxbury months before the protests began, and held more than a dozen town halls in Spanish, before the lockdown.

His opponent, he argues, has never shown his commitment to inclusion.

“He’s known for some things, but this is not one of them,” Kennedy said. “And you’re not going to tell me he’s one of the leaders who’s going to force this conversation in year 48 in office when he hasn’t done it in years 0 through 47.”

This quiet campaign — overshadowed by, well, everything — seems to be growing sharper in the past couple of weeks. In their last debate, Markey took his most direct shots at Kennedy, assailing him as a “progressive in name only” who’s been slow to embrace the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, among the popular progressive causes.

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Kennedy responded that Markey has flip-flopped on campaign finance issues and supported the 1994 crime bill that advocates now view as a driver of mass incarceration. It’s all a sign of a race that polls show as tightening — and one we all should be watching.

Kennedy says voters don’t ask him why he’s running; they ask when things are going to change. Kennedy says he is building a diverse coalition, and plans to continue to press the case that he can be a credible voice for change.

“The best way I can do that is keep showing up,” Kennedy said. “And when you’re there, listen, not speak. And we’ll keep trying to do that.”



Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.