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Markey, Kennedy spar in final debate ahead of Sept. 1 primary

Senator Ed Markey and Congressman Joe Kennedy III sparred in a TV debate on Tuesday evening.
Senator Ed Markey and Congressman Joe Kennedy III sparred in a TV debate on Tuesday evening.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In their final one-on-one meeting before next month’s primary, Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III delved repeatedly into the incumbent’s decades in Washington, with Markey clinging tightly to his record and Kennedy rarely missing the chance to jab at it.

The frequent turns toward federal laws from decades ago offered opportunities for both candidates on the television debate stage in what’s become a vitriolic intra-party brawl: Markey, to champion his long history of making law; Kennedy, to punctuate his critiques of his fellow Democrat as an out-of-touch creature of the Beltway.

It also meant the duel, at times, focused heavily on Washington sausage-making. And while lacking the type of made-for-soundbite attacks Markey used to his advantage before, it often put him on the defensive, especially early in the debate.

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Still, the night failed to produce an explosive moment that could alter the race’s trajectory before the Sept. 1 election, leaving the two in a fierce dogfight as they head into the final stretch.

The opening minutes of the debate were particularly brutal for Markey, as he sustained questions from moderators about two different constituents who publicly criticized the senator for treating them with indifference when they asked for help.

Colin Bower described Markey as “aloof” when he sought the senator’s help after his ex-wife kidnapped his two sons, taking them to Egypt, according to a WCVB report; and Danroy Henry Sr., criticized Markey for having “dismissed” their pleas for his help getting prosecutors to reexamine the police killing of their son, DJ Henry. Henry’s parents have endorsed Kennedy.

“I’m very proud of my constituent service,” Markey said, pointing to his work helping pass opioid legislation that he said helped families whose loved ones have struggled with addiction. In responding to the Henrys’ criticism, Markey also pointed to two separate letters he signed on to with Kennedy in 2014 urging the Department of Justice to investigate DJ Henry’s killing.

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Kennedy jumped on the line of questioning, using it to offer the sharpest rationale yet for why he is seeking to replace Markey: pitching himself as the one who will go far beyond the minimum to help his constituents and will put his heart and soul into the work even if he comes up short.

“The difference is that you try. The difference that we can make in this position is that you help when people are in need,” Kennedy said. “And if you think that a letter or two letters that somebody else wrote is enough, fine.”

Kennedy was less successful when he challenged Markey’s frequent boast that he has more than 500 laws on the books. Many of the bills in that tally include legislation Markey co-sponsored, “literally signing his name to somebody else’s work,” Kennedy said.

“Under that definition, I am an author of the Green New Deal. The difference is, I wouldn’t claim to be,” he said.

But the attack immediately set Markey up for an extended response, in which he ticked through a series of bills he’s championed, including environmental, gun violence, and Alzheimer’s research legislation — punctuating each example with the phrase: “That’s my law.”

“I can go on and on,” he said. “ . . . I’m very proud of that record. If you want to yield back to me again, I will continue on the litany of success I’ve had for the people of Massachusetts.”

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With mail-in voting already underway, the race has become increasingly negative and personal in recent days, reflecting what polls show to be virtually a dead-heat. The one-hour forum, hosted by WCVB Channel 5, The Boston Globe, WBUR, and the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, continued in that vein.

But Markey appeared more restrained than in other recent debates, going after his opponent less aggressively. The one exception was when the topic of super PACs came up.

Markey resumed his demands that Kennedy tell his brother and father, former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, to “stop funding” the negative ads a pro-Kennedy PAC is running against Markey. He also said Kennedy should tell his family members to disclose the PAC’s donors.

“Tell your twin brother, tell your father to make it public. Who are the contributors?” Markey said, claiming that none of the contributors to the pro-Kennedy super PAC has been made public. In fact, the PAC submitted a monthly filing to the Federal Election Commission in early August disclosing donors of $545,000, the majority of which came from labor groups.

Federal filings that would definitively show whether Kennedy’s father has moved money from his still-open campaign account into the PAC don’t have to be filed until after the Sept. 1 primary.

While the Globe has reported that Kennedy’s twin brother, Matthew, is helping raise money for the PAC, there’s no record to date that Kennedy’s father has contributed to it.

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Kennedy parried Markey’s jabs by repeatedly pointing out Markey declined to sign the People’s Pledge the senator had supported back in 2013 to keep outside money out of the race and by questioning the integrity of some of the donors supporting Markey through super PACs.

“His super PAC has accepted a donation from a misogynist who lost his board seat at Uber because he said women talk too much at board meetings,” Kennedy said, making a reference to David Bonderman, a private equity executive who has given $50,000 to United for Massachusetts, which is supporting Markey.

“The fact is this money is coming in because you wouldn’t stick to your word,” Kennedy charged.

Markey and Kennedy have spent nearly a year trying to put distance between themselves, though Tuesday provided more examples of how closely they align in ways both big and small.

Both said they oppose life sentences without the possibility of parole, though Markey said he’d make an exception for terrorists. They each begrudgingly gave Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, better marks than officials in Washington for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both said they cried some time in the last two days.

The debate also lent itself to quirky moments. Kennedy struggled to answer a question of which current Republican senators he admires the most.

“Oh, Ed,” Kennedy told moderator Ed Harding, before saying he would need more time. (To reporters afterward, Kennedy picked two: Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, for his work on protecting domestic violence victims, and Missouri’s Roy Blunt, for his support of the Special Olympics.)

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Markey, on the other hand, quickly reeled off Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Blunt, and John Thune of South Dakota — the two latter are top lieutenants to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — because he had “partnered” with each onlegislation, including one with Thune to curb robocalls that was signed into law in December.

“By the end of this year, all of you out there, robocalls will become a thing of the past,” Markey asserted, though the law is expected to reduce, but not eliminate, the spam calls.

The two candidates lightly sparred over police reform, with Markey touting the fact he co-sponsored a bill with Senator Cory Booker, dubbed the Next Step Act, that would overhaul sentencing and other aspects of the criminal justice system.

Kennedy quickly pounced: Markey signed on roughly a year after Booker filed the bill.

Markey was undeterred. “There’s only two sponsors of this bill: Cory Booker and myself,” he said.

James Pindell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.