Senator Edward Markey was finishing the second leg of his public schedule when he stopped to pull a red iPhone from his pocket. He craned the device above his wiry, 6-foot-1 frame, encouraged Reverends Willie Bodrick and Jeff Brown to step into frame, and hit record, offering his 43,200 TikTok followers an update — this time from Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church.
“I’ve been over here several times before,” Markey said after the stop last week. “But never doing my selfie video to say I was here.”
Fresh from reelection and a rebranding as a hip, progressive fighter attuned to Democratic youth, the 74-year-old has started his new six-year term in an unusual place for him: seemingly everywhere.
He’s been in Shrewsbury, Brockton, Chicopee, Lowell, and South Hadley. His TikTok page includes a supercut video from nine stops including in Salem, New Bedford, and a shop called Hot Oven Cookies in Springfield. He’s been to that city twice and Worcester three times since mid-February.
In all, voters who propelled him over former representative Joseph P. Kennedy III in September’s nationally watched primary, and to a general election victory in November, have been able to see him 42 times in Massachusetts in less than three months, according to a Globe review of Markey’s public schedules. The sudden surge in visibility — amid a still-lingering pandemic, no less — amounts to a sea change for a thrice-elected senator who, not long ago, spent less time in Massachusetts than any other member of the state’s delegation.
“It’s like he’s still on a victory tour,” said Anthony Cignoli, a Democratic strategist in Western Massachusetts. That type of high-profile victory “can be the kind of thing that takes the long, old warrior and completely re-energizes him.”
Markey has clearly embraced it. His win over the 40-year-old Kennedy not only etched Markey in history — no Kennedy had lost in Massachusetts since 1946, the year Markey was born — it elevated the Malden Democrat’s profile in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., to heights unforeseen during his nearly five decades in Washington.
He’s starting his second full Senate term while Democrats control the White House and hold the advantage in both chambers of Congress. With it, Markey has established himself as a voluble voice in the party’s growing liberal wing, advancing him beyond the image of the “other” senator from Massachusetts toiling dutifully in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s shadow.
Last month, he headlined a longshot liberal push to expand the Supreme Court. He’s beat the drum in the national press on eliminating the filibuster, another item high on the progressive wish list but one President Biden hasn’t supported. As expected, Markey has also clung tight to his advocacy of the Green New Deal — and his association with its other top sponsor, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — staking out clear ground in the debate over how to best address climate change.
“He’s more focused than I’ve ever seen him,” said Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who has served in Washington with Markey for 24 years. “And we need to be engaged like never before. The stars aligned over Washington right now [for Democrats].”
There are real questions regarding what appetite, if any, the Senate Democratic caucus has for the priorities pushed by Markey and other progressive Democrats. “Some of the things he’s calling for are not going to pass,” said Jessica Taylor, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
But even one-time critics say they see a newly engaged junior senator. Shannon Liss-Riordan, a high-profile labor attorney who was Markey’s first primary challenger before she ultimately dropped out of the race, credited him with pushing Senate leaders to make independent “gig” economy workers eligible for unemployment benefits in last year’s federal CARES Act.
Liss-Riordan said she spoke to Markey personally about it and he later sent a letter to Senate leadership urging the workers’ inclusion.
“He’s meeting the moment,” Liss-Riordan. “What we are seeing from our senator is what Massachusetts needs. If that race played a part in putting issues into focus, and really driving home the importance for Massachusetts to be a leader on these national issues, I’m really pleased to see that.”
For a time, that chance didn’t always look possible. When Kennedy launched his challenge in September 2019, Democratic insiders speculated that Markey, after decades of cruising to reelection, might simply step aside rather than face a rising Democratic star with the famous last name and 100-watt smile.
A poll that month showed voters favored Kennedy by 14 points in a head-to-head matchup. Asked who is the more liberal candidate, 42 percent of those surveyed said Kennedy — 18 points ahead of Markey.
But the septuagenarian recalibrated, running unapologetically to the left, embracing social media to reach young voters while retail politicking was curbed by the pandemic, and emphasizing his blue-collar roots in Malden, where he owns the yellow two-story house he grew up in.
Even now, Markey seems to still relish beating the perceived odds.
“A lot of people now understand me,” Markey said in a Globe interview at the Twelfth Baptist Church. “I think there were perhaps some political observers, savants, reliable sources who never understood the race from the beginning to the end of why young people wanted these huge changes.
“As that unfolded, it was serving as a political education tool for many,” he said, pausing slightly, “call them traditional political observers in the state of Massachusetts.”
It appears Markey has seized on the momentum last fall’s reelection offered. But those close to him said it’s helped spotlight the Markey they’ve long known for rallying for left-of-center priorities, sometimes well before they enter the frame of consciousness.
“It showed the real Markey,” Mark Horan, who has served as an adviser to the senator, said of the primary. “Joe Kennedy was the best thing that ever happened to him.”
In winning, Markey also overcame questions that have long dogged him about his residency and his presence in Massachusetts. A Globe review last year of travel records found he spent as few as 77 nights in his home state in 2017, and that two years later, he spent fewer nights here than even Warren, who was running for president.
In 2019, Markey held 15 public events over the first five months of the year, according to advisories his office released at the time. That he’s held nearly three times as many events so far in 2021 has not gone unnoticed, particularly in places where local officials felt he had previously ignored them.
“He’s been here probably more than he was all of his previous terms,” said Springfield City Councilor Justin Hurst, a Kennedy supporter who criticized Markey last year for not being present enough in the state’s third-largest city.
A member of Markey’s team reached out personally to him after the election, Hurst said, and Markey visited the city in February and April, including rallying with local officials to celebrate the state’s decision to revoke a permit for a massive wood-burning power plant proposed in Springfield.
“It’s sad that being present a couple times moves you up a notch in the stratosphere. But I’m glad he got the message,” Hurst said of Markey. “It’s a darn good start.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.