The killing late last month of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer sparked weeks of protest demanding systemic changes to law enforcement and other systems of power. It’s also led the two white men competing in Massachusetts’ Democratic Senate primary to recalibrate their campaigns, as they attempt to meet the moment and live up to progressive voters’ demands on issues of race and policing.
Incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III have attended protests and vigils, introduced legislation to combat police brutality, and held virtual conversations with Black leaders. They’ve both signed a pledge to reject campaign donations from police unions as a sign of their commitment to reform. And they’ve both attacked each other for coming up short in the fight for racial and social justice.
At a TV debate this month, both candidates — one an elected official for nearly 50 years, the other a Kennedy — acknowledged that they benefit from white privilege and can’t truly comprehend the difficulties, and pain, that people of color live with every day.
“I know I’ve been privileged. Black and brown families have always lived different lives in our country, and it’s time for us to admit it and do the job that is necessary in order to give them the justice” they deserve, said Markey.
“I’m a white guy, born into enormous privilege,” said Kennedy later in the night. “I know that what comes with that is a certain station in life where you’re not going to be able to wholly understand or comprehend the challenges that others confront. But that does mean that it is far past time for white Americans to actually help shoulder that burden.”
The shift in focus is a reflection of how pivotal the moment feels.
Kennedy, who is beating Markey in the still-important fund-raising arena, made racial justice the focus of his second television ad, with plans to spend $1.2 million this month to run the 30-second spot in markets across the state.
In their most recent debate, Kennedy sought to cast Markey as failing over his more than four decades in office to lead on issues that matter to Black Americans and other communities of color.
“You might be known for some things in your time in office, senator. Racial justice . . . is not one of them,” Kennedy said.
Markey, for his part, attacked Kennedy for once working for the Republican district attorney on the Cape and Islands, Michael O’Keefe. Markey said it showed poor judgment that Kennedy chose to work for a “right wing” prosecutor who “opposes the kinds of progressive changes we’re looking for” in the criminal justice system.
(O’Keefe responded with a statement to the Globe. “Ultra liberals like Sen Markey often confuse so called right wing views with common sense,” he said. “The Senator knows nothing about my career. I have never spoken to him or even seen him in Massachusetts so I’m not really impressed with what he says one way or another.”)
As on other issues, the candidates are advocating similar policy responses on racism and policing. Both had previously signed on to legislation that would create a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for slavery. Both candidates have advocated for legal changes that would make it easier to punish police for misdeeds, including legislation to end so-called qualified immunity, a legal concept under which police officers can be protected from liability for most job-related conduct.
Yet their proximity on policy obscures why each man’s supporters say he is better suited to help address racial inequities.
According to their respective supporters, Kennedy shows up and listens, and uses his powerful platform to advocate for the marginalized, while Markey has a long record of leadership pushing for changes that benefit communities of color, notching numerous legislative wins along the way.
Kennedy’s Black supporters say he was a presence in communities of color around Massachusetts long before Floyd’s death. More importantly, they say, he’s come not just for photo ops or to ask for something, but to listen.
Monica Cannon-Grant, a Black antiviolence activist from Roxbury, decided to back Kennedy after confronting him at an event early in the campaign — “Hey, for me as a Black woman, it’s two white guys running, what’s the difference?” she said then — and asking him to visit her neighborhood if he wanted her support.
That following Saturday, Kennedy came to her house, without cameras or other press, and Cannon-Grant gave him a tour of her neighborhood — the bullet holes on the side of her house, a neighbor who lost a son to gun violence, other members of the community who spoke to him about their struggles.
“One of the things I can appreciate, is he said, ‘Listen: I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to let the people closest to the problem be the voice and direct me and give me the information,‘ ” Cannon-Grant said.
Since then, Kennedy has continued to call and ask for her advice, she said, and he attended the giant, peaceful rally in Franklin Park against police brutality she organized on June 2.
By contrast, Cannon-Grant said Markey has not been a presence in her district, unless he was trying to pass a bill or otherwise needed support for something.
“He’ll get on Twitter with thoughts and prayers, and how Black lives matter. . . . We can’t use thoughts and prayers to take care of the issues that are happening in our community,” she said.
Justin Hurst, the Black president of the City Council in Springfield, a majority-minority city and the third largest in the state, praised Kennedy’s outreach to Black leaders in Western Massachusetts since the beginning of the pandemic and his efforts to ensure that communities of color get their fair share of resources to combat the coronavirus, which has disproportionately hurt Black and brown Americans.
Hurst, who has endorsed Kennedy, said he also heard from Senator Elizabeth Warren early in the crisis about its impact on communities of color. He did not hear from Markey.
“It would seem to me that at the very least during an election season, I would see you, hear you,” he said of Markey.
Markey’s supporters say the 73-year-old incumbent has been a leading fighter for communities of color.
“The senator has spent time in my district, he’s listened and responded to the needs of our community,” state Representative Liz Miranda, a Boston Democrat whose district comprises parts of Dorchester and Roxbury, said in an e-mail. She said Markey fought to ensure small businesses in her district, vital to immigrant workers, were included in Congress’s economic stimulus package.
Rachael Rollins, the Suffolk district attorney, who has endorsed Markey, said Kennedy’s decision to work for O’Keefe is relevant as voters compare the candidates’ records.
“Criminal justice reform and legal issues and policing are the civil rights issue of our time, and we need people that are fluent in that, or at the very least are surrounding themselves with people leading the way in those areas and are on the right side of justice,” said Rollins. “The Republican DA of the Cape and Islands is not.”
For state Representative Nika Elugardo, whose district covers Jamaica Plain, Markey’s embrace of “geeky” policy details — which she sees as key to dismantling white supremacy — and his willingness to spend years pushing legislation even if its not popular show why he’s the better candidate to advance racial justice.
“To me there’s no contest here, Congressman Kennedy is a delightful person [and] it’s nice that he has an ethic of physical presence,” said Elugardo. But in the Senate “we need people who are passionate about getting the nuts and bolts policy done.”
She pointed to Markey’s achievements getting money for Alzheimer’s research, home energy help for low-income families, and Internet access for schools as among the ways he’s helped address crucial priorities for communities of color.
“When nobody else was caring about us, he was fighting for those things,” she said.
Showing up at Black community events “is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t dismantle structural racism like the types of policies Senator Markey has been working on and passing and fighting for.”