Potential Joe Kennedy vs. Ed Markey face-off at center of Democratic convention

Senator Edward Markey shook hands Saturday during the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention in Springfield.
Senator Edward Markey shook hands Saturday during the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention in Springfield.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

SPRINGFIELD — Senator Elizabeth Warren on Saturday said she sees nothing to criticize in Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III launching a primary challenge to the candidate she has endorsed, Senator Edward J. Markey.

Warren told reporters that she stands by her endorsement of Markey, which she made in February. But she declined to offer any words of discouragement for the 38-year-old Kennedy as he mulls a challenge to Markey.

“I couldn’t ask for a better partner in the Senate,” Warren said of Markey in comments made shortly before she took the stage at the state Democratic Party’s annual convention here.

But she called both men friends and offered equally strong praise of Kennedy, noting that she had him and his wife as students at Harvard Law School.


“I have nothing but the highest respect for him. And I have no criticism,” Warren said when asked about the pushback from numerous high-level Democrats who have said publicly that they don’t like the idea of Kennedy getting into the race.

The focus of this year’s convention was issues, not candidates — but the hypothetical primary contest between Kennedy and Markey was still front and center for many activists.

From a booth in the MassMutual Center exhibit hall, the Markey campaign handed out neon-green T-shirts, rally signs, and instructions to meet up around noon. The plan materialized as Markey readied to give his keynote address — a crowd of green-shirted, sign-waving supporters crowded the floor in a visible demonstration of the 73-year-old Malden Democrat’s support within the party’s activist base.

In his remarks, Markey recounted his blue-collar background growing up in Malden — first in his family to go to college, first visit to Washington, D.C., when he was sworn into the House in 1976. In doing so, he provided an implicit contrast with his potential rival’s background of wealth and privilege — hinting at how Markey may respond to a Kennedy challenge.


“I know the American Dream,” he said.

“The response I received today is the response I’m receiving all across the Commonwealth,” Markey told reporters later, when asked about recent polls showing Kennedy would have an edge over Markey if he gets into the race.

“All I can do is go out there, do my job, fight for the issues that people care about, And what I’ve found over the years is that everything else will take care of itself.”

Kennedy wasn’t in the hall when Markey addressed the crowd of more than 4,000 activists and party officials due to a constituent event. After the speaking program, he moderated a panel on confronting racism in politics before a packed room.

Later, Kennedy met with local supporters in a nearby office building, where he was greeted with fans holding signs urging him to jump in the race.

He addressed his ongoing decision-making process in brief remarks to the crowd of more than 100. “This is not an easy thing,” he said. “And yes it could put some folks in an awkward spot. I’m not going to do that if I don’t think the urgency of the moment demands it, and [if] I don’t think we can actually do it.”

A few people in the crowd wore “Jump in Joe” T-shirts. One lead member of that group, which organized to draft Kennedy into the race, gave the Newton Democrat his own shirt, while volunteers circulated, gathering signatures for the group’s petition urging Kennedy to run.


At the convention, activists offered divided views on the prospect of a Kennedy-Markey showdown.

Markey supporters, of which there were many, dismissed Kennedy’s move as pure ambition boosted by a famous pedigree, and praised Markey’s extensive record fighting for progressive causes, first and foremost the environment.

Other Democrats find the prospect of a Kennedy bid thrilling. Several pushed back on the idea — voiced loudly by a number of prominent national Democrats — that it would suck money and attention away from more important fights.

“Competition is good,” said state Senator Eric P. Lesser of Longmeadow in a brief interview on the convention floor. He said he has heard “a lot of excitement” about the prospect of Kennedy jumping in the race. “Everybody is looking for the strongest way to stand up to Trump.”

Lesser, who knows Kennedy from before either were in elected office, later introduced Kennedy at the post-convention meet-and-greet.

Dave Marro, a 66-year-old delegate from Gloucester, pointed to the fact that Warren selected Kennedy to introduce her when she announced her run for president back in February.

“The fact that she chose him to speak before her is a pretty strong endorsement for me,” said Marro, who attended the February event in Lawrence.

Joanna Setow, a 17-year-old North Quincy high school student who will be eligible to vote in next year’s Democratic primary, was not enthusiastic about a Kennedy challenge.


“I don’t see why he needs to be in the race,” said Setow. “He doesn’t really offer anything different.”

The two challengers for Markey’s seat who have officially declared their candidacies also addressed the convention.

Author and business executive Steve Pemberton offered an eloquent encapsulation of his inspiring biography, telling of his climb from unwanted foster child to man with a successful career and family. He also offered a contrast to Kennedy’s background, pitching himself as one who can understand the state’s majority, who like himself, exist “far away from the world of entitlement, and power, and privilege.”

Labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan brought a sledgehammer on stage — representing a nickname some clients gave her when she waged a successful legal fight against American Airlines taking skycaps’ tips away from workers. The sledgehammer symbolized how she would serve voters if elected to the Senate, she said.

“I am in this race because I believe that the Democratic Party has failed working people,” she said.

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane
. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.