Joseph P. Kennedy III, descendant of Democratic royalty and four-term congressman, opened his campaign for the Senate Saturday framing his candidacy as an urgent calling to fix the “broken system” that has ignored the problems of many and laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump, seeking to harness discontent coursing through the electorate as he kicks off a high-stakes generational challenge to incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey.
“Donald Trump has forced a reckoning in our nation, without question,” Kennedy said, addressing a diverse crowd of more than 200 in a spartan gymnasium of the East Boston Social Centers. “But to meet this moment requires more than just defeating him. It requires taking on, clearly, a broken system, a calcified structure that allowed him to win in the first place.”
Kennedy did not name his primary opponent, but implicit in his criticism was that Markey, who has been in Congress longer than Kennedy has been alive, has had his chance to repair the dysfunction of Washington, and failed.
Markey responded to the formidable challenge by calling on Kennedy and his two other primary challengers to agree to a debate in November solely focused on climate change, an issue on which the 73-year-old Malden Democrat has been working for more than a decade. The move was inspired by Markey’s experience mingling with the youth climate strike participants Friday on Boston’s City Hall Plaza, his campaign said.
“For the next generation, we can’t wait,” Markey said in a minute-long video released ahead of Kennedy’s event, in which Markey highlighted his partnership with progressive icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Democratic congresswoman from New York, on the Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Markey, and vigorously defended him as a crucial player in the climate change fight, helping muddy the generational change argument Kennedy and his supporters make.
With his famous political pedigree, it’s not a straightforward task for Kennedy to pitch himself as a political outsider. Yet aspects of his rollout suggested contrasts he will likely play up over the next year of campaigning.
Kennedy, who served for two years in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer, effortlessly switched from English to Spanish at his announcement and again at his first stop afterward, a tour of Villa Victoria, an affordable housing complex in the South End and a hub of the city’s Hispanic community.
Residents and employees at the complex responded warmly to Kennedy addressing them in their native language. Yahaira Objio, resident service program director at Villa Victoria, said she was pleased to hear him speak Spanish and to learn he had lived in the Dominican Republic.
“Maybe he knows more about us, about the need that we have. Maybe he’s a strong candidate for us,” she said.
The optics of the race are certain to emphasize the age contrast between the two men. Kennedy entered his announcement event with his towheaded 1-year-old son, James, on his hip, a gaggle of other young Kennedy offspring around him.
Kennedy followed his announcement with a weekend jammed with intimate events across the state.
The message and itinerary indicates Kennedy will seek to build a coalition that includes communities of color and other groups frustrated by Washington inaction, rather than compete for the party activists Markey has courted heavily. Kennedy’s weekend tour includes a homeless shelter in Salem; a discussion with the Franklin County Opioid Task Force in the epicenter of the state’s opioid crisis; a meeting with LGBT asylum seekers in Worcester.
Kennedy came out of the gate with endorsements from two big labor unions: the Charlestown-based Teamsters Local 25, which has 12,500 members, and IBEW Local 103, which has about 10,000 members and was an early backer of Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston, who last year toppled a longtime incumbent.
“This is about doing what’s best for working people,” said IBEW Local 103 business manager Lou Antonellis. “Yes, that means being strategic about the long-term and putting leaders and advocates into the US Senate like Joe Kennedy III who will be able to fight for workers’ rights, not just for the current generation but also for the next.”
Markey’s campaign will counteract any charges that the senator hasn’t done enough to fix Washington by emphasizing his long record of leading on various policy fights, winning successes big and small, said John E. Walsh, Markey’s top adviser.
“Washington has got to get a lot more like Ed Markey. . . . He’s in there every day trying to fix it,” said Walsh. “If this is going to be a debate about who can make Washington work better this is going to be a fun election for me.”
Markey also has signaled he will seek to emphasize his humble blue-collar roots, which stand in contrast to his opponent’s privileged background. Kennedy’s entrance to the race has sparked anger among some rank-and-file Markey supporters who see Kennedy’s challenge as motivated by a sense of entitlement.
“Nobody is entitled to a United States Senate seat. Nobody’s entitled to a seat in Congress,” Kennedy said in response to a reporter’s question about those hard feelings. But the point of democracy is that every set number of years, elected officials have to make the case to voters, he said. “Senator Markey is a good man; I expect him to make a case. I don’t see why I can’t also make that case, and I believe I should be evaluated on the case that I make.”
But Kennedy isn’t shying away from his famous name, which the vast majority of Democratic primary voters see favorably. Instead, he sought to tie his family’s storied history to the larger narrative of the American Dream.
He recounted how his great-great-great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, fled “oppression and starvation” in Ireland to land in East Boston. The family faced hardship, and yet within generations had one of their own in the White House, he said.
The Kennedy clan was on hand, too, including his beaming father, former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Vicki Kennedy, widow of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
“My husband always said that an election is an education, that it’s an education for people to hear about what the candidates feel,” Vicki Kennedy said in a brief interview with the Globe. “Our democracy is really being challenged on so many fronts. And I think there’s no better way to renew our democracy than to have a good vigorous democratic debate.”
While recent polls show Kennedy with a comfortable edge over Markey, the elder Democrat enjoys fervent support among key party activists. He has racked up numerous endorsements from key issue groups and a lengthy list of elected officials, including most of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
On Friday, Environment Massachusetts — one of several major environmental groups to endorse Markey — announced it would put together a $5 million campaign to promote Markey and support his reelection campaign.
“We are lucky to have one of the nation’s strongest climate champions, Ed Markey, representing Massachusetts in the US Senate. Voters need to know what Ed Markey has done throughout decades of public service,” said Ben Hellerstein, the group’s Massachusetts state director. “We intend to tell his story.”
Two other Democrats have launched campaigns for the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2020 — labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and businessman Steve Pemberton.
Victoria McGrane can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.