Kicking off Massachusetts’ marquee Labor Day breakfast in Boston, one emcee described the state’s labor movement as a “family.”
But a glance around the room was all it took to see that there’s some domestic drama afoot.
Draped from one gilded balcony in the hotel ballroom was a giant campaign banner declaring “Ed Markey, US Senate” in red, white, and blue, placed by some members of the Greater Boston Labor Council. Across the room, other members of the council, supporters of Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, had hung a banner of their own: “Kennedy for Senate.”
Both Markey and Kennedy attended the event, with Markey as a featured speaker, though the two did not appear to cross paths while there.
The speeches from the event dais stressed the importance of solidarity between working Americans and Democrats to enhance workers rights and protect democracy itself from corporate greed and attacks by the Trump administration.
Yet alongside that message were plenty of illustrations of how the potential primary contest between Kennedy, 38, and Markey, 73, is already dividing one of the key Democratic constituencies in the state.
Kennedy confirmed last week in a Facebook post that he is considering a primary challenge against Markey, who is running for reelection to his Senate seat in 2020. The four-term congressman, who is the grandson of the late senator Robert F. Kennedy and the son of former congressman Joe Kennedy II, said in the post that he is still weighing family considerations and what’s right in this political moment.
Close to 200 Kennedy supporters lined both sides of the street in front of the historic Boston Park Plaza Hotel Monday, waiting for the Newton Democrat to arrive, many holding wooden stakes adorned with small signs urging “Jump in Joe” and “Ready for JK3!,” a shorthand for Kennedy’s name used in political circles. Behind them was parked a tractor-trailer that boasted the name of the powerful Charlestown-based Teamsters Local 25; on it hung a banner: “Labor for Kennedy.”
They jostled for real estate with a smaller but visible contingent of Markey supporters, who flanked either side of the hotel entrance with bigger and more colorful signs, paid for by Markey’s campaign.
A leader of a “draft Kennedy” group blew a baby blue whistle as Kennedy approached. Chants of “Jump in Joe” started from the waiting supporters.
“This ultimately is not a question of anybody running against anyone else,” Kennedy said in response to questions from reporters, as he diligently avoided any criticism of Markey. “You run for the seat.”
He said he would be traveling the state talking to voters while he mulls getting into the race.
Around 150 of the people cheering on Kennedy were members of the IBEW Local 103, which has about 10,000 members, said the union’s business manager, Lou Antonellis. “We think Joe’s a younger, stronger advocate for labor,” he said. “We thought it was important to come out and show our support and try to encourage Joe to run.”
Inside the breakfast, Kennedy shook hands but appeared to have left before the formal speaking program got underway — and before Markey arrived. Quite a few attendees sported Markey campaign stickers on their lapels.
“In a year that we need every foot soldier out trying to get Donald Trump out of the White House it makes no sense for there to be a family squabble in Massachusetts,” said Mayor Dan Rivera of Lawrence, one of those wearing a Markey sticker. “It’s money, it’s resources, it’s time and energy better spent in flipping the Senate. It’s time and energy better spent getting Donald Trump out of office.”
The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts is just starting its formal endorsement process, but president Beth Kontos said she is standing behind Markey, describing herself as an enthusiastic backer of his environmental agenda and the support he has shown labor. She sounded unpersuaded that Kennedy had more to offer.
“Nothing against him, but I just don’t know that he’s done enough yet, except be born into a good name,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think you throw someone away just because they’ve been around for a long time. Especially this man in particular has a really good record,” she continued, referring to Markey.
When it was Markey’s turn to deliver remarks from the stage, his prounion stemwinder was warmly received.
Markey recounted his father’s working-class experience and the many wrongs he believes President Trump has visited on working Americans. He then held up a small white plastic card that allows him to vote on the Senate floor and said that he considers it a union card.
“I will have your back on the Senate floor every single day I am there,” he told the cheering crowd.
Not everyone at the event was keen to take sides in the hypothetical fight between two men who are separated more by age than politics.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, a high-profile workers’ rights attorney who announced her bid for Markey’s seat in May, said her own campaign is going “great” and she believes her message is resonating as she travels the state.
“I think people are very excited about a fresh perspective. Someone who’s been fighting for workers and fighting for women,” said Liss-Riordan, who has gained national attention for her crusades as a lawyer on behalf of workers against Amazon, Google, FedEx, and Starbucks.
As for all the Kennedy drama, she had this to say: “Joe Kennedy is a very nice guy. Senator Markey is a good man. I think what voters in Massachusetts want and are looking for is someone who will stand up and fight the establishment. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley, who spoke at the breakfast, may be the number one inspiration for primary challengers everywhere after she toppled longtime Democratic incumbent Michael Capuano in 2018. But she diplomatically sidestepped weighing in on the Senate 2020 primary.
“I’m fortunate enough to call them both colleague and friend. I’m grateful for their respective leadership on everything from environmental justice, to mental health, to gun violence prevention. You know, we’re lucky to have them,” she said after the event.
She declined to directly answer whether she might lend her endorsement to one of the candidates in the race. “Ultimately, the most important endorsement is that of the electorate, and everybody will have the opportunity to make their case,” she said.
Victoria McGrane can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.