LAWRENCE — Down in the polls five days before the end of the Senate Democratic primary, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III stood on the dance floor of a Dominican restaurant Thursday, neon lights flashing at his feet. Speaking Spanish, he told the 50 or so people assembled there, many of them local business owners, that he wanted to hear their frustrations with Washington.
Taking the microphone from Kennedy, Representative Adriano Espaillat of New York, who traveled to Massachusetts to stump for Kennedy in Spanish-speaking areas, underscored what he said was the message sent by Kennedy’s presence: Here is a congressman who, five days out from an election, came up to Lawrence to ask what can be done to help your businesses.
It was Kennedy’s fourth stop of the day, and he had two more to go, all focused on wooing working-class voters and voters of color, particularly those who live in the state’s so-called Gateway Cities. With a breakneck schedule of campaign events in similar cities across the state, Kennedy is making a last-ditch effort to turn out enough votes in these places on Tuesday to overcome his opponent, incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey, who recent polls show has a sizable lead.
As the final days of the contentious primary tick down, both Kennedy and Markey are battling for working-class voters, particularly those of color, a crucial slice of the Massachusetts electorate that campaigns say prefer to vote on Election Day, rather than via mail-in ballots or early voting.
Kennedy’s campaign, which has always seen blue-collar white voters and voters of color as part of its base, has planned an aggressive schedule of outreach to these voters, believing they can turn out enough of them to overcome Markey’s lead with wealthier white voters.
In doing so, the 39-year-old Newton Democrat says he is offering a preview of how he would approach the job. He says it’s in contrast with Markey, who Kennedy claims doesn’t spend time listening to and helping constituents like the ones Kennedy is visiting.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Kennedy said in an interview Thursday, speaking over the boisterous chatter of the crowd at El Pez Dorado, after wrapping up the round-table discussion with local business leaders. “The biggest difference between myself and the senator is how we define the job. It’s being more engaged, it’s giving your heart and soul to the seat.”
But Markey is waging his own fight for voters of color, and his campaign insists it has gained significant ground with these constituencies.
“We intend to win those votes, and we are absolutely going to compete aggressively for them,” said Markey campaign manager John Walsh, acknowledging that winning voters of color is essential to victory on Sept. 1. He pointed to Markey’s schedule, with recent or planned stops in Quincy, Brockton, Fall River, New Bedford, Springfield, and Revere, among other cities.
On Friday, Markey’s campaign announced that the senator’s “Leads and Delivers” bus tour would focus on racial justice. The itinerary includes an appearance at an evening press conference with the NAACP and Brother Building, a local group of Black men, at the State House, highlighting “the social injustices Black lives face in Massachusetts.”
As he stumps, Markey has on his side the enthusiastic support of notable local officials of color, including Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, City Councilor Lydia Edwards of Boston, and state Representative Aaron M. Vega of Holyoke.
“Environmental justice is a Black issue,” said state Representative Liz Miranda, a Roxbury Democrat, touting Markey’s environmental work at a recent campaign event.
On Thursday, campaigning in Cambridge, Markey said, “Climate justice, environmental justice — it’s on the ballot this year, because we know who it most profoundly affects. It’s those who are poorest. Those who are Black, who are brown, who are immigrant. Those who are closest to the pollution.”
And the Markey campaign continues to roll out notable endorsements, snagging support in recent days from progressive figures such as Cori Bush, a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist who beat longtime Representative William Lacy Clay, a fellow Democrat, in a Missouri primary and who is a featured guest, along with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and others, in a virtual get-out-the-vote rally Friday night.
On Thursday, Markey gained the endorsement of Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who gained attention when she condemned the Trump administration’s response to the devastation visited on the island by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
And, of course, Markey has the backing of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, whose support for Markey is important to the Latinx community, said Mayor Dan Rivera of Lawrence, who also supports Markey.
“It’s about what she represents to our community,” he said. And in Lawrence, people know Markey because he helped the city in its fight against Columbia Gas of Massachusetts over the company’s role in causing the explosions and fires that rocked the area in 2018.
“He brought Washington to Lawrence during the gas crisis,” Rivera said, referring to a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in the city in the wake of the disaster. “And people remember that.”
Not everyone in Lawrence believes that is enough.
“I have been an elected official for almost eight years, and I feel that the current senator has not been a person who has been listening to local elected officials,” said Kendrys Vasquez, president of the Lawrence City Council, who is supporting Kennedy and campaigned with him Thursday. “Mr. Kennedy will be that voice for us in Washington; he will be attending our events; he will be present, unlike the current senator, who has been missing in action.”
And although Markey certainly has the lead in total endorsements, Kennedy has significant support from local leaders in many of the communities he is targeting in his final campaign push, including the city council presidents in Springfield, Chelsea, and New Bedford. In Lowell, the mayor and entire City Council have endorsed Kennedy.
Kennedy also has picked up the support of Mayor Yvonne Spicer of Framingham and Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins. He was endorsed by civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia, before the congressman’s death, as well as by Martin Luther King III and many members of the congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses.
Roy Avellaneda, Chelsea’s city council president, credits Kennedy for helping bring much-needed attention to his city’s struggle as one of the hardest-hit coronavirus hot spots.
“Before anyone was giving any attention to Chelsea, Joe had called in to check in and allowed us to use his platform to tell our story,” said Avellaneda, after standing out in the rain with Kennedy at an event followed by a tour of the Chelsea Collaborative, which has been providing food and other support to residents during the pandemic.
Kennedy’s involvement with Chelsea brought media attention, Avellaneda said, which brought help from Governor Charlie Baker and others.
In a speech delivered in East Boston on Friday, Kennedy sought to drive home the contrast between his intention to be a hands-on senator for those “struggling, and scraping, and striving” and what he describes as Markey’s less robust approach to the job.
Speaking along the waterfront, not far from where he launched his campaign almost a year ago and where his own ancestors landed from Ireland nearly 175 years ago, Kennedy described the stakes of the race as restoring the American Dream for every hard-working Massachusetts family, a fight that requires more passion and hands-on effort than he said Markey is delivering.
“And there is no excuse for that, given what we are up against today,” Kennedy said.
And then the candidate with the famous last name got back in the white van he’s been traveling in, and hit the road.
Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report.