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OPINION

In Markey victory, age beats youth and youth beats the establishment

74-year-old incumbent, not Kennedy, wins backing of next generation.

Senator Edward J. Markey speaks at a primary election night event at Malden Public Library on Sept. 1.
Senator Edward J. Markey speaks at a primary election night event at Malden Public Library on Sept. 1.Allison Dinner/Getty

A torch has been passed to a new generation. And against all odds, this rising crop of progressive Democrats saw their future in Edward J. Markey, a 74-year-old incumbent senator — not in Joseph P. Kennedy III, the 39-year-old congressman who challenged him.

A Kennedy lost in Massachusetts. That’s historic. And so was everything about this primary race. On one hand, age beat youth. On the other, youth beat the establishment. Backing from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York gave Markey street cred with progressives, especially on environmental issues. They were fired up even more after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Kennedy, saying he represented the “party’s future.” Really? Massachusetts progressives showed Pelosi what they thought of that.

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Markey has served in Congress since 1976. In earlier newspaper profiles, he said he was inspired to get into politics by Bobby Kennedy. Who would ever have imagined that four decades later, Bobby Kennedy’s grandson would take him on — and that Markey would win the battle?

“This is the biggest night of his life,” said Tom Keady, a longtime political activist and Markey supporter. It’s easy to see why. When Kennedy got into the race, Markey was expected to get out or get crushed. He did neither. Instead, he put on his iconic sneakers and fought back.

The atmosphere in front of the library in Markey’s hometown of Malden didn’t feel as electric as the moment deserved. Maybe it was the coronavirus pandemic-era masks, which kept faces and emotions under wraps. Maybe it was the cool night air, so different from the heat of a packed ballroom where a candidate’s supporters usually await election results with the help of a drink or three.

Reports of a big turnout in Boston sparked a few rumors about a Kennedy resurgence. But everything stabilized when numbers started pouring in. Kennedy won ethnically diverse urban centers such as Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester. But it wasn’t enough to overcome Markey’s sweep of wealthier suburbs, including Brookline and Newton, which are part of Kennedy’s Fourth Congressional District. Markey also won Boston.

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There will be plenty of post-mortems on the Kennedy campaign and why it failed. From my perspective, Kennedy never told the story of who he is, beyond his last name. His ads were more about his famous relatives than about his own accomplishments. He spent a lot of time telling voters why Markey didn’t deserve reelection but little time explaining exactly what would change if he replaced Markey in the Senate. He couldn’t or wouldn’t state the real reason behind his candidacy — he’s young, Markey’s old, and it was time for a change.

Markey, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to do what Kennedy didn’t do — tell his story in his own way. One ad celebrated his humble Malden roots. Another, with the tagline “I’m sticking with Ed,” made the case for experience. An ad featuring AOC helped him bridge the generation gap and become the candidate of young progressives.

Markey also got important help from local progressives such as Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who knows a little bit about rocking the system. “Before it was cool, he was a progressive for decades,” said Rollins Tuesday night at the Malden library as the votes rolled in. While it may be tempting to champion “a younger newcomer unseating an incumbent curmudgeon,” she said, Markey defied that stereotype. “Young people I’ve met have been inspired by this man’s work. When Ed Markey wins, it shows voters will be judging people by their character, not their age.”

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Rollins has been critical of Kennedy’s “entitlement and privilege.” Yet, after she watched Kennedy deliver his concession speech on her laptop, she praised his grace and humility. “It’s not over for him,” she said.

For the moment, however, it was. It was Markey from Malden who stepped in front of the library to the tune of “Walking on Sunshine” and accepted victory. “Thank you for believing in me, because I believe in you,” he said. And yes, amazingly, it was Markey — not Kennedy — who won the backing of the next generation of progressives and will be expected to deliver for them.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.