Nearly a year of campaigning has unearthed few differences between incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey and his primary challenger, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, on the major issues of the day, and so during their televised debate Tuesday the opponents tried to crush each other by highlighting small differences in their past positions and mounting attacks on campaign tactics.
The relatively small-bore nature of the offensives didn’t prevent both candidates from delivering them with heat. The negative tone, and amped-up intensity, of the race’s penultimate debate reflected the uncertainty of the race, with polls and each campaign’s internal assessment indicating the candidates essentially are locked in a dead heat ahead of the Sept. 1 primary.
The night’s hits ran the gamut from Markey’s relative lack of time spent in Massachusetts to allegations that Kennedy’s father is funding negative attack ads against his son’s opponent. They exchanged critiques of years-ago immigration votes, and sparred over who has shown stronger leadership during their time in elected office, and who would be a stronger fighter for change in the Senate.
Kennedy largely aimed to paint Markey as an out-of-touch creature of Washington, who may vote the right way and file popular bills but doesn’t do much else to leverage his powerful position to bring about change that matters to his constituents.
“I believe you deserve more out of your senator,” Kennedy said at the top of the debate, hosted by WBZ-TV.
Markey, who found himself on the defensive more than Kennedy, emphasized his role in crafting the Green New Deal climate change plan and sparking a broader movement of millions of young people “that is going to change our country and our planet,” while characterizing Kennedy as less progressive and less experienced than himself.
“I represent experience and change at the same time,” Markey said.
Kennedy accused Markey, repeatedly, of not matching his actions with his words when it comes to pushing for racial justice. As he has before, Kennedy bashed Markey for opposing busing to desegregate Boston Public Schools early in his political career, and for his vote in favor of the 1994 crime bill, which criminal justice activists say caused deep harm to communities of color and led to mass incarceration.
Adding to that, Kennedy also criticized Markey for failing to help the family of DJ Henry, a young Black man from Easton killed by police 10 years ago in upstate New York, seek justice for their son.
“You did nothing. The only thing you did months later was sign on to a letter that my office put together,” Kennedy charged.
Henry’s father, Danroy Henry Sr., made the accusation that Markey “dismissed” the family’s pleas for help in a video posted to Twitter earlier this month. The video quickly prompted a public apology from Markey, who reached out to the Henrys to apologize directly. Markey has yet to speak with the Henrys, according to a campaign spokeswoman. The Henrys have endorsed Kennedy.
But on Tuesday night, Markey repeatedly said Kennedy was lying when he claimed that Markey did nothing to help the Henrys, pointing to two separate letters Markey signed on to in 2014 urging the Department of Justice to investigate DJ Henry’s killing.
“It is just not true, what Congressman Kennedy is saying. I have a letter here with his signature next to mine, not on one letter, two letters,” Markey said. “To say I did not partner with him, it’s just absolutely untrue. It’s a misrepresentation, it is a falsehood, and he should just stop saying it.”
Markey countered Kennedy’s broader jabs at his effectiveness by pointing to his long record of championing sweeping environmental protection policies, even when they weren’t popular, such as the Green New Deal when he and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first introduced it.
“It was pooh-poohed,” criticized even by quite a few Democrats as going too far, “but it seems prescient today,” Markey said. The same goes for his decision to back Medicare for All in 2017 when Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont first introduced his bill, while Kennedy took two years to support the legislation, he said.
Markey got most heated when he went on the attack against Kennedy for the recent arrival of a super PAC backing the 39-year-old challenger with millions of dollars in TV ads, including the first negative TV ad of the campaign, which went on air over the weekend.
The 74-year-old incumbent raised the prospect that Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy II, is helping fund the super PAC. The elder Kennedy still had more than $2.8 million in his own campaign account, left over from when he served as a congressman from Massachusetts from 1987 to 1999.
Whether or not the elder Kennedy is contributing to the PAC may not become public until after the primary. That’s because it appears the PAC has chosen to file monthly reports to the Federal Election Commission, which would mean the names of any donors who give money after Aug. 1 will not be seen by the public unless the PAC discloses them on its own.
Federal filings show the PAC had raised $545,000 as of the beginning of this month, much of it from labor groups.
“I’m sure your father is watching right now. Tell your father right now that you don’t want money to go into a super PAC that runs negative ads,” Markey urged.
Jabbing his finger, he continued to press Kennedy to “tell your father” not to spend on negative ads. (Markey’s Internet-savvy supporters quickly started using the hashtag #TellYaFatha on Twitter.) Markey cut off Kennedy’s attempts to interject that he had publicly disavowed negative ads.
“Have you told your father that?” Markey demanded.
“I’ve said that publicly many times,” Kennedy began.
“Have you told your father that?” Markey shot back, and shot back again, until the moderator told Markey to let Kennedy respond.
Kennedy hit back, saying it was Markey who opened the door to super PACs when he refused to sign on to the People’s Pledge that would limit outside spending in the race. Markey, despite supporting such restrictions in the past, had countered with a watered-down pledge that would allow progressive groups to spend on positive messages. Kennedy rejected that as a loophole that would render the agreement meaningless.
Markey seemed to deflate a bit when a few minutes later Kennedy said Markey shouldn’t complain about negative campaign tactics when his own supporters have sent horrible messages on social media, including a tweet that said “ ‘Lee Harvey [Oswald] got the wrong Kennedy’ … and not a word coming from you” or your campaign, Kennedy said.
“That is just something which is completely unacceptable, should not be in politics, and I make that a pledge to you, it is absolutely wrong,” Markey said.
As the race enters the final three weeks, both candidates have the backing of super PACs, which can raise and spent unlimited amounts of money but cannot coordinate with campaigns. Markey, for example, has benefited from a PAC called United for Massachusetts, formed by environmental activists. That group has spent about $1.1 million on TV ads backing Markey so far this campaign, according to data shared with the Globe by a Democratic ad buyer familiar with Massachusetts campaigns.
Federal filings show the three largest individual donations to the pro-Markey PAC came from wealthy businessmen, at least two of whom are billionaires.
The pro-Kennedy New Leadership PAC has spent just over $1 million on TV so far, the same data showed. Kennedy’s twin brother, Matthew, and other Kennedy family members have been making calls to raise money for the PAC, according to a Democratic operative familiar with the PAC.