Sunday night’s debate between Senator Ed Markey and his challenger, Representative Joe Kennedy, underscored the microscopic policy differences between the candidates, but it highlighted one important macro trend: Latinos may tip the balance in this race.
The microscopic: A vote that Markey took in 2013 to preserve the number of beds in immigration detention has suddenly become a flashpoint in the race.
The macro: The controversy over the vote reflects a broader battle for the hearts and minds of the Latino vote. This is an unusually intense recognition in a tight race that Latinos in Massachusetts, hardly uniform in outlook, are emerging as a key constituency.
Kennedy has made immigrant communities a focus from the beginning, providing an edge that the Markey campaign is aggressively trying to combat. Kennedy went to the Texas border to protest the Trump administration’s heinous detention and separation policies. He launched his campaign in East Boston, reflecting his family’s roots as immigrants from Ireland fleeing from poverty who arrived to East Boston in 1848 with nothing to their name, and his identification with Latino issues. He speaks Spanish fluently, as was on display last night when he answered two questions in Spanish from a Telemundo Nueva Inglaterra journalist Grace Gómez.
And for many Latinos, he does not come across as entitled, his surname notwithstanding.
“The last name… I firmly believe we should get to know people and not judge them by their last name. When I hear Americans complain about him being entitled I say, ‘you should talk to him,‘” said Tony Portillo, a Revere small business owner who attended a Kennedy event in East Boston earlier this month.
For many newcomers to the state, the Kennedy name doesn’t carry the baggage that it does for others. For some, it’s associated with a positive legacy. Others are taking him at face value and some cannot understand the consternation among Democrats that his ambition has generated.
Kennedy’s Spanish fluency cannot be underestimated as an advantage, especially with bilingual Latinos, even though some of Markey’s Latino supporters surely saw it as pandering. But I am sure that if Markey spoke fluent Spanish, he wouldn’t hesitate to show that off.
In multiple, if anecdotal, conversations I had with supporters of both candidates, Markey’s support among Latinos seems to trend younger, driven in part by the senator’s track record on environmental issues and the unwavering support of progressive champion Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York — the pair introduced the Green New Deal in 2019. His campaign recently hired a newly formed Latino public affairs firm and has assembled a list of Latinx elected officials supporting him, including state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, state Representative Andy Vargas, and Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo.
To me, it feels like Markey, for all his years in Congress, seven as a senator, has struggled to fully engage Latino communities in his race for a second term in the Senate. Despite his strong record on progressive immigration issues — he led the push among colleagues to force the Trump administration last summer to reverse its plan to deport sick immigrant kids — many immigrants are simply fed up with the lack of action in Washington when it comes to thorough immigration reform. That’s not Markey’s fault, to be fair. But many within this constituency desperately want change, period.
Indeed, for many Latinos I spoke to, it comes down to fresh blood.
“We need politicians to achieve what hasn’t been achieved all this time. Let’s leave it to the younger politicians,” said Saul Ortez, owner of a handful of Pollo Royal fast-food restaurants. “If a politician has already been on his seat for this long, we need to give someone else the chance.” Similarly, Sandra Nijjar, founder of the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen, said: “I think Kennedy, if given the opportunity, could make a bigger difference than Markey” on the topic of comprehensive immigration reform.
Then there are those Latino leaders who are still torn between Markey and Kennedy.
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, an East Boston-based immigrant advocacy group, said she has been neutral in the race but will make a decision on whom to support soon. Whoever wins, she said, will have to be “a lot more vocal, a lot more challenging, not just against President Trump, but also against the whole Republican structure and the conservative Democrats who have not represented all the interests of our immigrant community.”
Many Markey supporters point out that change does not equal progress. But to many Latino voters I spoke to any kind of change will do. That, of course, is not enough; but the sentiment is valid nonetheless because these communities feel taken for granted. Who would be best for Latinos the day after the election? Montes is right that whomever the electorate picks, he needs to try harder to deliver for the Hispanic community.
Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.