In a typical election year, a 43-year veteran of Congress with $3.5 million in the bank and a proudly liberal record wouldn’t have to worry a wink about winning a contested Democratic primary in Massachusetts.
But this is not a typical election season, and Senator Edward J. Markey knows he cannot ignore Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent labor lawyer with no political experience who recently announced she would challenge him in the 2020 Democratic primary.
“I take every challenger seriously, and that’s why I’m going to conduct this race running at full speed for the next year and a half, nonstop, every day,” Markey said in an interview.
Still, Markey refused to discuss or even acknowledge what may be the greatest threat to his reelection: the nationwide surge in Democratic voters eager for more women, people of color, and political outsiders to fight President Trump in Washington.
Liss-Riordan has said she wants to tap into the energy of those voters, pointing out that they helped Ayanna Pressley defeat Markey’s congressional colleague, Michael Capuano, last fall, and also propelled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory over another longtime Democratic House member in New York.
Markey, when asked repeatedly about the desire in his party for fresh faces and more women in Congress, consistently sidestepped the question, saying only that he plans to run on his record.
He also declined to say what lessons he has taken from Capuano’s defeat and whether he sees any parallels between that race and his own.
“I see every race as something that is unique and to itself, and that is how I’m going to conduct myself in this race,” Markey said in his ninth-floor office in Boston, adorned with photos of him with former President Obama, the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, and other Democratic icons. “I’m going to run on my record, what I’m fighting for, what I’m passionate about, and how I have served — and want to continue to serve — the people of Massachusetts.”
Despite his reluctance to discuss the restive political environment, others say Markey, 72, could be susceptible to the same forces that helped Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez unseat older, white, male incumbents in Democratic primaries last year.
“He’s extremely vulnerable because the climate is about change, and if you’re a male who has been in Washington for 43 years and people want change, that’s not a good position to be in,” said Paul Trane, a veteran political strategist who advised Capuano.
“He has a lot of the advantages of incumbency,” Trane said of Markey, “but incumbency doesn’t mean what it used to mean.”
In challenging Markey, Liss-Riordan, 49, said she is hoping to translate her experience as a crusading attorney who has sued Amazon, Google, FedEx, Uber, and Starbucks into legislative action in Washington.
The cases she has filed have accused employers of depriving drivers, servers, and other low-paid workers of wages or misclassifying them as independent contractors to avoid giving them benefits.
Echoing Senator Elizabeth Warren, Liss-Riordan said her legal work has shown her that corporations are “rigging the system and rewriting the rules to fuel their profits off the backs of workers.”
Asked in a phone interview on May 31 how she differs from Markey, she framed her candidacy in terms of gender and viewpoint. After graduating from Harvard, she noted, she worked for Bella Abzug, the women’s rights advocate and member of Congress, and cofounded a feminist organization called the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation in the 1990s.
“I would have a particular focus because of my work as a woman and outsider,” Liss-Riordan said. “I feel like there’s a moment now, an energy and a momentum, where people want a fresh perspective, they want to see more women in Congress, and I think the voices of working people have been left behind.”
Markey argued he has been effective in addressing the state’s needs. He pointed out that he worked with Republicans to allow nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants to prescribe Suboxone for opioid addiction and helped secure $65 million for fentanyl detection equipment at the border and $100 million for research into a universal flu vaccine.
Asked about policy differences with Markey, Liss-Riordan identified one: She supports impeachment; he wants the House to continue investigating Trump first, a position he reiterated in the interview on May 30, one day after special counsel Robert S. Mueller declined to clear Trump of wrongdoing in an extraordinary statement to the press.
Markey also declined to discuss what he sees as the major differences between him and his opponent, saying, “I don’t know her.”
Liss-Riordan’s candidacy will put Markey on relatively unfamiliar terrain. First elected to the House in 1976, he jumped to the Senate in 2013 when he won a Democratic primary in a special election to fill former secretary of state John F. Kerry’s Senate seat. Other than that race, Markey has faced just one primary opponent in the past 35 years.
A Republican candidate, Shiva Ayyadurai, who ran against Warren in 2018, also has said he will challenge Markey in 2020. And Steve Pemberton, a first-time candidate who has worked as a human resources officer for companies like Monster.com and Walgreens, is likely to enter the Democratic field later this month.
In the interview, Markey repeatedly emphasized that he is brimming with “energy,” seizing on a word that Liss-Riordan has used frequently to introduce her own candidacy.
“This is the most energized I’ve ever been in politics,” Markey said.
“Donald Trump gets me up every day ready for another fight.”
Markey also mentioned that he has joined with Ocasio-Cortez, a star on the left, to sponsor the “Green New Deal,” a sweeping climate change proposal that has galvanized young progressives.
Given Markey’s long history of fighting for the environment and other liberal causes, Mara Dolan, a Democratic strategist, said the senator will be tough to beat in 2020.
“If you see him go out and work a crowd, people like him,” Dolan said. “What do you say, other than that he’s been in office for a long time?”