As Edward J. Markey attempts to defend his Senate seat from Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, he’s moved his hometown — and the modest house that he grew up in — front and center.
“This is where I’m from,” Markey says as he walks down the street of blue-collar Malden in his first ad in the race. “My father was a milkman. I drove an ice cream truck to pay for college.”
It’s a potent contrast to the gilded legacy of the Kennedys. But there’s one problem: Markey spends less time at home than any other member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, according to a Globe review of members’ travel schedules. The senator even spent 22 fewer nights in Massachusetts than his colleague Elizabeth Warren last year — when she was running for president. The year before that, Warren spent more than twice as many nights in the state as Markey.
Overall, Markey spent 383 nights in the state between Jan. 1, 2017, and May 31, 2020 — or about 31 percent of the total nights in that 3½-year period. His nights at home picked up the closer his re-election campaign drew. In 2017, he spent just 77 nights in his home state. In 2019, he spent 120 nights here — and he’s on track to spend twice as many nights in Massachusetts this year.
Markey and his team insist the number of days spent in the state versus at his other home in a tony Maryland suburb is not an accurate measure of the senator’s contribution to his constituents.
“Every decision to divide time between being home and being in Washington is a challenge, especially with a spouse with a career in the nation’s capital. I believe that I have balanced my time between Washington, D.C., and Malden effectively,” Markey said in a statement to the Globe. Markey’s wife, Susan Blumenthal, a public health expert and health care consultant, has a private practice based in the D.C.-area.
“When I am in Massachusetts, I meet and listen to constituents about their concerns and needs. I go to Washington to legislate, to build coalitions, to pass laws, and create change. I’m honored to serve the people of Massachusetts, and I am proud of the work I do for them.”
But questions about Markey’s residency and how much time he spends in his home state have long dogged his career, and Kennedy has seized on them to puncture Markey’s down-home Malden image. He’s hit Markey for “absent leadership” and for not “showing up,” and he has vowed to be “a constant presence in Massachusetts” — unlike Markey.
“Senator Markey isn’t here enough,” Kennedy said in one debate. “He isn’t in Massachusetts enough.”
In response, Markey has parked himself in his childhood home on Townsend Street, receiving reporters and photographers on his front porch. The yellow two-story house has served as a backdrop for viral photos of the septuagenarian’s surprisingly hip pandemic style, a spot to show off his basketball skills while video chatting with Celtics player Enes Kanter in May, and the unwitting accomplice in a minor controversy when an American flag was spied lying on the porch floor in another photo in June.
When a Globe columnist by chance found him there last month, Markey joked, “Welcome to the compound!” in a jab at the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port vacation complex.
Markey served more than three decades in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2013, filling a vacancy created when John Kerry became secretary of state. For much of that time, he listed his home in Chevy Chase, Md., which he bought with his wife in 1991 and is currently assessed at $1.16 million, as his primary residence.
In 2002, Markey switched his primary residence to the Malden house, which he purchased in 2001 after his father’s death. It is currently assessed at $351,400.
Still, questions emerged about how much time he spent in the Malden home. In 2013, the Globe reported that water bills suggested the home was infrequently used and that Markey had never taken advantage of a popular city tax break by claiming the home as his primary residence. Markey still does not claim the tax exemption, which would have saved him 50 percent on his $4,276.92 annual property tax bill.
A Markey spokeswoman said simply that the senator does not take that tax break.
Markey’s political history is littered with challengers who tried and failed to defeat him by making his extensive time in Washington an issue. In 2010, Gerry Dembrowski, a Woburn Republican, walked around his Malden neighborhood asking residents if they’ve ever seen Markey. Most said they knew he lived there but had not seen him, and Dembrowski released a video of their comments called “Ed Markey: The Undocumented Congressman.”
It did not stop Markey from winning that year’s race in a 2-1 landslide.
Three years later, Republican Scott Brown revived the attack as he weighed running in the special election for Kerry’s Senate seat. Brown asked a talk show radio host, “Does he even live here anymore?” He said he never saw Markey on the plane back to Massachusetts when he was in the delegation.
But now, facing a closely contested primary against a Democrat with whom he does not have many policy differences, Markey’s connection with his home state may become more of an issue. The political context also has changed. Until relatively recently, it wasn’t uncommon for members of Congress to move their families to D.C. while they served, taking trips back to their home districts for events and to meet with constituents. But as anti-Washington sentiment began to rise, members were eager to show they hadn’t been co-opted by spending as little time in D.C. as possible.
“When you’re down here, you can almost see skid marks on the stairs when final votes are called and members are bolting to the airport,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist who used to run the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “It’s a very different world than Markey has been brought up in.”
Barney Frank, once the Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said he found it hard to even schedule meetings because members were so eager to get back home.
“I think, frankly, we suffered from people spending too little time on the job rather than too much,” said Frank, who has been critical of Kennedy’s entry into the Senate race.
It’s unclear if Democratic voters in Massachusetts care about where Markey spends his time — unless Kennedy can convince them the senator has stopped caring about them or fighting for their interests.
“Spending time in D.C. is what people expect of elected officials,” Russell said. “You have to demonstrate that he has not only physically moved out of the district but moved away from the interests of the state.”
And while the data show Kennedy spends more time in Massachusetts than many of his House colleagues, and a lot more than Markey, early in his career he had a deeper roots in D.C. Kennedy and his wife, Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, purchased a house in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood shortly after he was sworn in for his first term in 2013. The couple’s primary residence remained in Massachusetts, and they later sold the D.C. house in 2016. Their current home in Newton is worth about $3 million.
During the years they owned the D.C. home, Kennedy still returned to Massachusetts most weekends and every congressional recess, and the couple’s primary residence has always been in Massachusetts, the Kennedy campaign said.
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant who is neutral in the race but whose colleague is consulting for Kennedy’s campaign, said she believes Massachusetts voters expect extensive face time with their elected officials.
“If Ed Markey has not been in Massachusetts as much as Elizabeth Warren, if not more, when she’s running for president, then he has a lot of explaining to do,” she said. “I think a lot of voters are going to find that unacceptable.”
A review of where members of Massachusetts’ 11-person congressional delegation spend their time shows Markey has in recent years spent the least time in his home state.
At the Globe’s request, all but one of the state’s elected representatives to Congress provided data on how many nights they spent in Massachusetts, D.C., or elsewhere over several years. (Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston provided just one year of data.)
The Globe asked members of the House to share two years’ worth of data, the length of a House term, from June 2018 through the end of May 2020. Massachusetts’ senators were asked for six years of data, the length of a Senate term. Markey’s office provided data for 3½ years, Jan. 1, 2017, through the end of this May; Warren provided data going back to 2014.
Markey not only spent fewer nights in Massachusetts than Warren last year, he spent significantly fewer nights in his home state in both the preceding years as well. In 2017, Markey spent 77 nights here while Warren spent 143. In 2018, Markey spent less than half the time in Massachusetts that Warren did — 87 nights to Warren’s 178 nights.
Comparing Markey to his House colleagues also shows a notable difference. In the two-year period starting in June 2018, Markey spent an average of 11.4 nights each month in Massachusetts, or about 38 percent of the total nights.
Kennedy spent an average of 21.2 nights each month in Massachusetts, or nearly 70 percent of the total nights.
The House and Senate have different work and voting schedules, making comparisons between House and Senate members less than perfect.
After Markey, Representative Seth Moulton of Salem, who also ran for president in 2019, spent the fewest number of nights in the state among the delegation members who complied with the Globe’s request. He slept in Massachusetts 389 nights, or an average of about 16 nights per month, over the two-year period, compared to Markey, who spent 274 nights here.
Lynch, who provided data only for 2019, reported spending 180 nights in Massachusetts that year. Representatives Lori Trahan and Ayanna Pressley did not join the delegation until January 2019. Since then, they spent an average of 20 and 17 nights per month in Massachusetts, respectively.
Markey’s perceived absence is a long-running complaint from some officials around the state.
“I have never in the course of the last 20 years ever physically seen Ed Markey in Central Mass. Never,” said Guy Glodis, a former sheriff of Worcester County, state lawmaker, and longtime member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee.
While Glodis has not formally endorsed in the race, he said he plans to vote for Kennedy, who has reached out to him personally several times. Glodis hasn’t heard from Markey.
But for every official who says Markey is never around, there’s another who says he is an engaged and present politician. The Markey campaign brags about his long list of endorsements from Massachusetts organizations and elected officials, including more than 100 state senators and representatives representing all corners of the state.
His campaign recently released an online “Markey Map” that compiles legislative and funding accomplishments he has delivered to every town, city, and county in the state. Examples provided range from the minor — Markey visiting the Revere food pantry in May, hosting a town hall on the Green New Deal climate plan in Worcester in November — to the significant, such as helping obtain a $15 million grant for the Port of New Bedford in 2018 and helping secure millions of dollars for various communities in the pandemic relief legislation passed by Congress.
Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, who got his start interning for Markey in the 1980s, said the senator is always accessible and recently helped the city access back rent for families available through the federal coronavirus bill. “He’s always been there for us and to me that’s what ultimately counts,” Christenson said. “Whether he’s in Washington for one week or one month, as long as we can work with him, that to me is the ultimate barometer.”
Correction: Due to inaccurate information provided by Representative Seth Moulton’s office, an earlier version of this story included the wrong number for the total nights Moulton spent in Massachusetts. Moulton spent 389 nights in the state between June 1, 2018 and May 31, 2020.