At an early June debate, incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey got right down to framing the race as he saw it: “Congressman Kennedy is a progressive in name only,” he declared.
It’s a narrative that has been seized by Markey’s campaign and his Internet-savvy supporters: Markey is the true progressive in the race, his supporters contend, while his opponent, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, is a lackluster moderate coasting on his famous last name.
But Kennedy’s supporters, including those who consider themselves progressive, say that characterization is false and that Markey has taken plenty of problematic stances in his nearly five decades in Washington. And so the contentious primary race between two men who largely share the same policy positions and ideology has become a referendum on who is the real progressive.
To Markey’s supporters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to endorse Kennedy last week was just further evidence that Kennedy represents the establishment, while Markey is the insurgent, despite having served in Congress for nearly 50 years.
Meanwhile, some politicos familiar with Markey’s long tenure in the House, where he served from 1976 until 2013, when he won a special election to the Senate, say that Markey is hardly the second coming of Bernie Sanders — who has declined to endorse in the race.
“That whole thing is wildly overdrawn,” said former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, who served with Markey in the House for more than 30 years. “It never would have occurred to me three months ago” that the race would be framed as Markey being the candidate for the left, and Kennedy challenging him from the right, he said.
“That’s not an accurate depiction of either of their careers,” said Frank, who has generally been critical of Kennedy’s decision to challenge Markey.
Even some of Markey’s supporters, furious as they are at Kennedy’s decision to try to unseat the stalwart incumbent Democrat, say it is unfair to describe Kennedy as centrist or somehow less progressive than Markey.
“Joe Kennedy has put a lot of energy in to progressive action and legislation, and I don’t think it’s fair to denigrate him in that way,” said David Backer of Newton, during a rally Saturday that Markey hosted in support of postal workers.
Nonetheless, Backer, who lives in the district Kennedy currently represents in the House and supported him prior to this primary, described himself as “very upset and angry” at his decision to challenge Markey.
“It smacks of ego and ambition, especially in a year where what we need to be focused, in my opinion, to getting rid of Trump and his enablers in Congress,” said the Web developer and self-described activist.
Kennedy has served in Congress since 2013. His supporters have attempted to puncture Markey’s narrative as the sole progressive champion in the race by highlighting aspects of his record where he broke with progressive positions of the day — including Markey’s decision to vote for the Iraq War in 2002, his support for the 1994 crime bill, his opposition to busing to desegregate Boston public schools in the 1970s, and support for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
Markey, who was raised in the socially conservative milieu of Irish Catholicism, changed his positions on busing and abortion in the 1980s. He has said he regrets voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq, blaming the Bush administration for lying, and that the sentencing guidelines in the crime bill were a mistake.
Kennedy expressed dismay that the progressive left, so strong in confronting former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, over his record (which is similar to Markey’s) “is willing to give Markey a complete pass on his record,” he said in an interview with the Globe on Saturday after a get-out-the-vote event in Roxbury. Kennedy ticked through examples of Markey’s less-than-progressive stances, including a decision in 2013, shortly after arriving in the Senate, to vote “present” in committee on a resolution to give President Barack Obama the authority to use military force in Syria.
Kennedy defended his own record, saying it is “extremely frustrating” to see it “denigrated and cast as something other than they have been.”
He pointed to his work on transgender rights, his vocal defense of health care, his support for the Green New Deal. “It is a very strong progressive record, period,” he said.
And yet many Markey supporters continue to view the incumbent as the more progressive of the two candidates, the one who has consistently led on key issues, long before they were popular — especially the environment.
That view has been reinforced by the steady stream of progressive figures and national groups that have endorsed Markey, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution, and the youth-led Sunrise Movement.
Cori Bush, an insurgent progressive who toppled longtime Democratic Representative William Lacy Clay of Missouri in an Aug. 4 primary, endorsed Markey after her victory, saying on Twitter that “bringing new, progressive ideas to the table is more urgent than preserving political dynasties.”
Emily Norton, a member of the Newton City Council who is active on environmental issues, said that Kennedy is pro-environment but hasn’t led on those issues, while Markey has. “Why with everything we know about climate change and the existential threat that it presents, why would we replace that guy?”
Markey in an interview Saturday ticked through several legislative accomplishments, including laws increasing fuel economy standards in vehicles and $25 million in funding for federal research into the causes of gun violence. “I’ve been leading and delivering on progressive issues throughout my career,” he said.
The left wing of the Democratic base has criticized Kennedy as being an incrementalist, citing for instance his relative slowness to embrace Medicare for All, putting his name on the bill two years after Markey cosponsored it. Kennedy critics also highlight his previous opposition to legalizing marijuana, chafing particularly at remarks Kennedy made in a 2018 interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein that decriminalizing pot would inhibit the ability of police officers to use the smell to search vehicles for other illegal items.
Kennedy came out in favor of legalizing pot in November 2018, 10 months before Markey also switched his position on the issue.
He co-sponsored the House Medicare for All bill last year. Kennedy said his support came after its authors made changes that addressed his concerns with the original House bill, including removing language from the first bill that would have blocked federal money from funding abortion.
“I think you would have to do an enormous amount of mental gymnastics to say that Joe Kennedy is not a progressive,” said Massachusetts state Senator Paul Feeney, a Foxborough Democrat and former labor leader, who is backing him.
“When it comes to electoral politics, Twitter is not the real world,” and voters in his district know that “Joe Kennedy is the one that’s been actually showing up, and he’s the one that’s been fighting for them,” Feeney said.
The website Progressive Punch gives Markey slightly higher scores under its measurement, based on votes cast, but both lawmakers have earned scores in the high 90s out of a maximum 100. (By the site’s methodology, Pelosi ranks as a “hard core progressive,” despite the mistrust many on the left feel toward the California Democrat.)
And Kennedy has earned the endorsement of several progressive colleagues in the House, including Representatives Mark Pocan, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, Linda Sanchez, and Raúl Grijalva — all “hard core” by Progressive Punch’s yardstick. (Markey is too, while Kennedy falls slightly short of the score needed for that designation.)
Core progressive policy priorities aren’t going to succeed in the next year, said Pocan.
“They take building up the groundwork, building public support, building legislative support, and you need someone who’s in for the long haul. ... We need more next generation leaders who are able to get that done.”
Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.