It wasn’t that long ago that the Senate race between Senator Ed Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III was widely expected to result in a blowout for Kennedy.
But as the race enters the final stretch before the Sept. 1 primary, it is the veteran Markey who is showing signs of momentum.
Even more surprising, Markey has made it a close race by stressing his longstanding progressive credentials — not only on his signature issue of climate change, but also on matters of race.
Six months ago, if you’d asked me to name five issues that define Markey, racial justice would not have made my list.
But politics have been reshaped in 2020. Markey now speaks in broad themes about the changes that have to occur if Democrats regain control of the White House and Senate next year.
The cosponsor of the “Green New Deal” reaches back to the original for a metaphor.
“This is our 1933,” Markey said Tuesday. “We have to respond by thinking and acting big.”
He talks about the need to make sure equity and justice drive the agenda for the next Congress,
“From my perspective, it’s an opportunity to promote justice and equity by stopping current, by preventing future, and restoring historic oppression of people of color, migrant communities, indigenous communities,” Markey said. “So let’s just say that has to be the agenda,”
The race between Markey and Kennedy almost defies analysis. Kennedy began with a large lead in the polls, which is widely believed to have shrunk considerably, and perhaps evaporated.
While neither candidate is winning any awards for their debate performances, both bring impressive resumes and skills to the race. Still, neither of these privileged white men is exactly made for this moment. Neither has a profile that screams “change.”
I suspect the pandemic — and, with it, the near-absence of campaigning — has been a benefit to Markey, by depriving the dynamic Kennedy of one of his greatest strengths: his ability to connect with voters in person. That’s just not easy to do right now.
Markey, meanwhile, is reaching into his long political history to bolster his racial bona fides.
His campaign has unveiled video endorsements from two former colleagues of Markey, former state senator Bill Owens and former state representative Doris Bunte. Both were trailblazers: Bunte was the first Black woman to serve in the Massachusetts House, while Owens was the first Black state senator.
They, and Markey, were all freshmen together in the State House in 1972, and therein lies a tale.
As calls began to grow for greater minority representation in the Legislature, leadership was resistant. To the point of passing a gerrymandered district map that would have undercut the growing influence of Black voters.
Markey stood with his few Black colleagues — and against leadership, which was threatening reprisals — in helping to block the map’s adoption and pushing, successfully, for the first Senate district with a majority of voters of color.
Bunte and Owens — who eventually became the first person to hold the newly created seat — laud Markey for standing with them against the entrenched Beacon Hill machine.
“Ed Markey was one of the only white people supporting our position,” Owens, 83, recalled in the video. “Democrats began to lean on Ed Markey. He would not give in to leadership to make their lives easier.”
Bunte, 87, drew a connection between those battles and the ones being fought today.
“People are looking at issues of fairness and equity, and I’d like to think that because of the foundation we laid,” she said.
Another endorsement is coming: Steve Pemberton, the businessman who dropped out of the race shortly after Kennedy got in, is endorsing Markey as well.
This race is being fought on terrain no one would have predicted. But maybe Markey’s staying power shouldn’t come as such a surprise. He’s been winning races since 1972.
He wasn’t supposed to win this one, and he may not. But in 2020, nothing is following the script.