Since Edward J. Markey was first elected to Congress in 1976, he’s often been ahead of the curve in championing progressive causes, whether it’s cracking down on insider trading, ensuring consumer access to wireless spectrum technologies, or helping create a broad movement to put a freeze on nuclear arms.
Decades before CNN hosted its first town hall for presidential candidates devoted to climate change, and decades before Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist, was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” Markey worked to make the air we breathe cleaner and to stave off the catastrophic heat waves, droughts, and rising seas poised to displace millions of people around the world.
In the 1980s, he co-authored legislation, signed by President Reagan, to make household appliances more energy-efficient, which has saved Americans billions on electric bills and spared communities and the planet the toxic, heat-trapping emissions from hundreds of coal-fired power plants. He co-led the bipartisan effort to raise fuel economy standards for cars and trucks that resulted in the 2007 law that brought forth new, innovative low-emissions and electric vehicles to the marketplace and reduced Americans’ consumption of oil. And in 2009, he and Representative Henry Waxman of California successfully moved a historic cap-and-trade bill through the US House of Representatives that would have put a price on carbon emissions and made a significant impact on planetary warming, had it not faltered in the Senate amid lackluster support from an Obama White House that prioritized health care reform.
If the senator from Malden spends a lot of time in Washington, one reason might be that he’s been busy getting legislative proposals passed to improve people’s lives. With the pandemic ravaging the American economy, Markey has pushed for policies to aid vulnerable families, especially for the millions who have lost jobs, businesses, and health insurance during the crisis. He has advocated business relief targeted at enterprises owned by women and people of color, temporary assistance for gig workers, and greater oversight of corporate bailout funding.
What distinguishes Markey’s leadership from many other Democrats, however, is that he’s pushed the country to think bigger about its response to the pandemic, whether it’s a call to fight the disease with a new kind of Manhattan Project, pushing for larger-scale stimulus, or articulating that this political moment is akin to the conditions that made possible FDR’s New Deal. In this moment, the country and the Commonwealth need leaders who won’t settle for incremental progress, who recognize the profound underlying conditions of inequality and racial injustice that exacerbate our problems, and who notice that the table is set for transformational change and can help carry it out with legislative proposals.
No problem makes that need more apparent than the climate crisis. Global carbon emissions hit a record annual high before the pandemic, temperatures are rising, and the Paris agreement is in the lurch after President Trump’s avowed withdrawal. Climate disasters cost the United States more than $525 billion over the past five years. Summer heat waves kill the old and young, Siberia burns, and seas rise in coastal cities including Boston. Leading climate scientists recently have warned us that the window to act to prevent catastrophic warming is closing.
Yet political will to address climate change is growing in the American public, and the need for significant federal stimulus to address the fallout of the pandemic presents the opportunity to remake the economy to be more energy efficient and less carbon intensive. If Democrats win back the White House and the Senate, Congress may at last pass legislation to spare society the worst humanitarian and economic costs of climate disasters. Markey is poised — and arguably more prepared than any other politician in the US government — to fill in the conceptual aspirations of the Green New Deal resolution that he cosponsored with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with practical policies and to get them passed in Congress.
As countless observers have pointed out, the Sept. 1 Senate primary is not a contest between candidates with competing values. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III also cares about progressive causes, and his commitment to voting and health care access and to protecting immigrants and LGBTQ rights is laudable. A call to Joe is bound to yield insights about what’s happening on the ground in communities in the Commonwealth — the congressman has his finger on the pulse of his constituents in the Fourth District and of Massachusetts politics. He uses his name and that trademark Kennedy charisma to help Democrats around the country win, a noble cause in an era when the GOP has made Donald Trump its flag bearer. It is clear that Kennedy has a passion for public service and the drive to have a real impact. This board looks forward to seeing what he will accomplish, whatever his next role is.
But Kennedy has not made a persuasive case for removing Markey from the Senate seat he has occupied with dignity and tenacity while achieving real results. With the window for action on the climate crisis closing, Kennedy’s candidacy looks less compelling; while he’s committed to the cause, he lacks the chops and track record that Markey would bring to a legislative effort to renew the economy with cleaner sources of energy and make communities more resilient.
Contrary to what some skeptics of Kennedy’s bid think, primary races are not inherently a waste. They can serve to usefully challenge thinking within the party and to unseat incumbents who fail to deliver for their constituents or who have become hopelessly out of touch with the needs of the nation. But Markey is not past his time; rather, his time may finally have arrived.
The crux of Kennedy’s campaign against Markey seems to come down to the question of whether a generational torch-passing is needed in the delegation this year. And here, the senator’s own words to the Globe editorial board are his best defense: “It’s not your age. It’s the age of your ideas that’s important.”
Markey’s priorities are focused not on nostalgia for America’s past but on securing a better future, whether it’s advocating access to broadband in classrooms, research on gun violence, or curbing the pollution that will change the planet for coming generations. In the protests for racial justice sweeping the country, Markey sees echoes of past social movements, a chance to listen and have the politics of the streets shape the politics on Capitol Hill.
That’s not out of touch; it’s tuned in to what the next generation is demanding. And to do right by them, it’s urgent to keep Ed Markey in the game.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.