In a closely-watched race upended by the COVID-19 crisis, Senator Edward J. Markey and his challenger, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, sparred over immigration and criminal justice Sunday night in a television debate five weeks before their Sept. 1 Democratic primary.
Kennedy and Markey both attempted to frame themselves as the right man for the tumultuous moment, as each repeatedly knocked his opponent on various votes and positions.
In one particularly barbed exchange, Kennedy, a 39-year-old scion of the nation’s most famous political clan, ripped Markey, a 74-year-old whose Capitol Hill career stretches back to the 1970s, for a 2013 vote on an appropriations bill that maintained a requirement for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to keep 34,000 detention beds.
“[He] had a chance to stand with the immigrant community and chose not to,” said Kennedy of Markey.
Markey dismissed Kennedy’s criticism on immigration, saying Kennedy voted for a bill that had the same requirement.
They went back and forth.
"Congressman, just give me a break, you cast the same exact vote," said Markey.
Kennedy, speaking over him, replied, “Senator, that is not true. That is not true.”
Critics argue having a bed quota leads ICE to feel pressure to fill those beds rather than release immigrant detainees on bond as they await legal rulings.
Markey also criticized Kennedy for voting for legislation that he said would harm Puerto Rico “in a distinctly serious way.”
The legislation, according to Markey, is hollowing out the island’s educational, health care, and housing systems.
”Congressman Kennedy had a decision to make, and twice he voted for the bond holders to receive their payment and not for the people of Puerto Rico,” said Markey.
Kennedy responded, “Folks, if there was ever an example of why we need change in Washington, it is the exchange that you just heard; it is the politics of the past and it does not work.”
The debate was at times a choppy affair, with moderator Latoyia Edwards cutting off the candidates during their answers. There were also times when the two pols locked horns, addressing each other directly and talking over their opponent.
Markey asked Kennedy whether the congressman was motivated by the politics of conviction or the politics of convenience. He criticized Kennedy for what Markey framed as changes in Kennedy’s stances on Medicare for All and marijuana and also rapped the representative for working for a law-and-order Massachusetts district attorney.
Kennedy, meanwhile, knocked Markey for a vote in favor of the Iraq War and opposition to the integration of Boston public schools through busing.
”Senator Markey’s record, I think, deserves examination,” said Kennedy.
But there were reminders that they both share many similar positions. Asked if they support defunding police departments, both did not directly respond.
”I believe that it is absolutely imperative that we just reimagine what we are doing in our country,” Markey replied.
”I think we have to completely reimagine how we police in this country,” Kennedy replied.
Still, there was some jousting over criminal justice. Markey blasted Kennedy for voting to send military weapons to police departments. Kennedy shot back that Markey has never apologized for supporting mass incarceration.
Both said face masks should be mandatory in Massachusetts amid the pandemic, and both punted on whether Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, deserves another term.
Both brandished various endorsements. Kennedy mentioned he had been backed by more than 60 local labor unions and the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis; Markey noted support from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
Asked whom they would pick as a running mate if they were in the shoes of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Kennedy replied, “Ed Markey, other than that I’ll defer to Joe Biden”; Markey said “Elizabeth Warren, apart from that, an African-American woman.”
The state of the race is murky. The coronavirus pandemic has consumed voters’ attention and made traditional campaigning impossible. Who is up and who is down is now even more unclear because no one knows who will vote. Unlike previous years, every registered voter in Massachusetts has received or is receiving an application to vote by mail in the Sept. 1 primary.
The race has had no public polling in months and has grown more heated as the summer has worn on. Combativeness from both candidates was on full display during Sunday night’s debate, which was hosted by NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston, and NECN.
At one point, Kennedy took shots at Markey’s boots-on-the-ground presence in Massachusetts, which he suggested was lacking. He questioned whether Markey was giving all corners of Massachusetts adequate representation.
Of Markey, Kennedy said people in Chelsea, Springfield, and Worcester told him they hadn’t seen Markey.
Markey said he delivers for Massachusetts.
“Don’t say I’m not doing the job,” said the senator.
Both candidates are now up with TV ads, Markey launching his first on Thursday, a 30-second spot that emphasizes his blue-collar Malden roots while seeking to burnish his progressive bona fides by touting his work on the Green New Deal plan to fight climate change and his early embrace of Medicare for All.
Kennedy, meanwhile, has been up on TV since early May, spending more than $2.4 million on spots since then. He went live with a new ad this week, too, in which he tells viewers that Massachusetts needs “a new generation of leadership with the energy and courage to fight for change.”
Kennedy, a Newton resident, was first elected to Congress in 2012, succeeding Representative Barney Frank, who retired. Markey, first elected to the US House in 1976, won a special US Senate election in 2013 to fill the seat that had been held by John F. Kerry, who resigned to become secretary of state.
Two Republicans, Shiva Ayyadurai of Belmont and Kevin J. O’Connor of Dover, are also running for the Senate seat.
The winner of the GOP primary will face Markey or Kennedy on Nov. 3.
Victoria McGrane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.