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Yvonne Abraham

Kennedy would have to make a case against Markey, not just for himself

Congressman Joe Kennedy III and Senator Edward Markey spoke to demonstrators during the Together and Free:Rally Against Family Separation at City Hall Plaza in Boston on June 30, 2018.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

They’re going to have to do better than this.

The activists whipping up support for Congressman Joe Kennedy III to take on Senator Ed Markey keep saying this is not about the incumbent.

“We’re keeping this about Joe Kennedy,” said Jamie Hoag, a former aide to then-Governor Deval Patrick who is one of those leading the effort to recruit Kennedy to run in the Democratic primary. “We’re doing this because we admire Joe Kennedy and because he would bring a level of activism and advocacy that would combat the divisiveness of Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party.”

I admire Kennedy, too. He’s brave and decent and a champion of important causes, especially transgender rights. Since his election to Congress in 2012, Kennedy has put his head down, worked hard, and been a spectacular team player.


But if he runs, and if he wants to win based on more than that name, Kennedy will need to make the argument that he could do a better job than Markey, who was elected to a vacant Senate seat in 2013 after serving in the House of Representatives for 36 years. Otherwise, why run at all?

It’s not as if Kennedy would be making the Senate more reflective of America, as Ayanna Pressley did in the House when she toppled Congressman Mike Capuano. Or as superstar labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, who has announced a run against Markey, would do. And Kennedy will have to do better than claiming he will make McConnell’s Senate less divided — unless he’s invented some way to grow the Senate majority leader a soul. If he enters a Senate where Democrats remain in the minority, Kennedy will be just as frustrated as every other member of his party, thanks to McConnell’s deplorable obstructionism.


The knock on Markey, 73, is that he’s been around too long, gumming up a pipeline full of talented up-and-comers who are stymied by his and others’ reluctance to move on. The frustration, felt not just by Kennedy, 39, and Liss-Riordan, 49, who says the Senate needs a “fresh voice,” but by other talented hopefuls too, is understandable.

But being older doesn’t in and of itself make you ineffective. It hasn’t held back Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 79, as our own Congressman Seth Moulton can attest: She crushed his challenge to her without breaking a sweat. Experience should count, especially when that experience involves moving legislation.

And much of Markey’s experience and accumulated expertise happens to be on the most pressing issue of our time. He was an environmentalist decades before they were taken seriously. A young Congressman Markey, a longish-haired firebrand, implored the country to shut down nuclear reactors and turn to renewable energy at the Democratic National Convention in 1980. He led the fight for fuel economy standards and battled the Keystone XL pipeline. He co-sponsored legislation in 2009 that would have limited greenhouse gas emissions and put us on a different path from the ruinous one we’re currently on. It passed in the House, but the Senate killed it.

Environmentalists in Massachusetts say Markey has pushed them to mobilize fiercely in the face of attacks by Republicans: One Monday morning in 1994, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich signaled his intention to lay waste to the Endangered Species Act and other environmental regulations, Markey called activists to his Medford office and “read us the riot act,” said Jack Clarke, public policy director at Mass Audubon.


“He said we were not doing the job we needed to,” Clarke recalled. “He was not shy about pushing us.”

When he stood beside Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to unveil the Green New Deal, it may have looked like Markey was basking in the superstar freshman’s buzzy glow. But he’d been leading the fight since before she was born. True, he doesn’t ooze charisma; he can seem, for stretches, almost invisible. And over the years, he’s become an inside player. There’s plenty to ding him on.

Kennedy would make a terrific senator. But if he’s going to run at this crucial moment for our planet, he’s going to have to make a more compelling case for himself.

Youth and energy aren’t enough. Now, as before, Markey is leading the fight on climate change.

It’s not his fault America has taken decades to catch up to him.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham