A key piece of Joe Kennedy’s strategy: Appealing to people on the margins

Representative Joseph Kennedy held Ethiopiawit Samuel, 19 months, in Boston on Monday.
Representative Joseph Kennedy held Ethiopiawit Samuel, 19 months, in Boston on Monday.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

In a tailored navy suit and reddish tie with a pack of reporters trailing him, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III walked down Albany Street on Boston’s “Methadone Mile” Monday morning, the latest stop on his whirlwind statewide tour kicking off his Senate campaign.

Passersbys, several who said they were in the area seeking addiction treatment, called out his surname — Hey, Kennedy! — often with encouragement. He spoke about improving mental and behavioral health care to stop cycles of addiction and crime. He visited organizations that work with people struggling with opioid abuse. He listened to a resident’s plea for help.


“Thanks for showing up!” a man in a Red Sox hat called out.

Kennedy’s morning walk revealed a key piece of the Newton Democrat’s strategy for defeating incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey — appealing to people on the margins of the electorate, including those grappling with addiction, immigrants with families vulnerable to deportation, communities of color, and others who often haven’t always felt motivated to turn out on Election Day.

Kennedy said he aims to bring in new voters to his coalition by “showing up in places where people haven’t shown up and going to places that people don’t normally go.”

His first days on the trail illustrated the approach. He made stops at a South End affordable housing complex that serves a largely Hispanic community. He went to homeless shelters, listened at an opioid task force meeting in Greenfield, and met with LGBTQ asylum seekers in Worcester.

It’s a tack that evokes the playbook of Representative Ayanna Pressley, who last year pulled off a surprise double-digit primary win over a well-liked incumbent by boosting turnout among new voters.

But this time the strategy is being deployed by a candidate who has a much harder case to make that he is the anti-establishment choice, given his famous name and privileged background.


In the three days of his campaign, Kennedy has avoided directly criticizing Markey. But the implication of his “showing up” pitch is clear.

“We were in nearly 15 different stops over the course of the weekend. And you hear an awful lot of them say that politicians haven’t shown up in those places before,” he said.

At one homeless shelter in Fitchburg he visited, not a single politician had asked to visit before he did, Kennedy told reporters after his Monday morning tour.

“It is a critically important time in our country to say that every voice counts, every voice matters,” he said. “And we’re going to keep showing up until people actually believe that.”

Kennedy shook the hand of Serge Duffault, a Battery Wharf Hotel worker.
Kennedy shook the hand of Serge Duffault, a Battery Wharf Hotel worker.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

The Markey campaign pushed back against the suggestion that the 73-year-old Malden Democrat has lost touch with his constituents. Markey has been to Methadone Mile, visited the service providers, such as Boston Medical Center, that Kennedy visited Monday, and has been a leader in Congress on fighting the opioid epidemic, Mara Dolan, a spokeswoman for the campaign, said.

“The suggestion that he is not responsive to the issues of voters is not based on Ed Markey’s record, which if one of continued work on all the issues that concern the people of Massachusetts,” Dolan said. She included a list of dozens of cities and towns Markey has visited this year.

Markey also has “enormous appeal” to new voters, she added, pointing to the enthusiastic endorsement he received from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young liberal icon from New York.


Kennedy enters the race as the frontrunner, according to early polls, but Markey has been hard at work organizing support among the state’s Democratic establishment. He enjoys strong backing from party’s activists, as well as environmental groups who see his role in the fight against climate change as crucial.

“Markey is running a very traditional, establishment campaign,” rolling out endorsements from opinion leaders and elected officials, said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. That gives Kennedy an opening to cast himself as an outsider, she said.

Kennedy’s approach “is to win people over one-by-one . . . go to places that are overlooked,” struggling with problems that have been dismissed or marginalized, she continued. “I think there’s a real hunger for that in this election.”

Others are skeptical Kennedy, with his famous name and four terms in the House, can make a persuasive case to disillusioned voters.

“One of the problems of running an insurgent campaign — it’s more difficult if you are historically tied to the political establishment,” said John Cluverius, a political scientist at University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Still, Kennedy has received a warm welcome where he has traveled so far. And several of those events have showcased his fluency in Spanish, and the knowledge of Latin America that grew with two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic.

On Saturday, he not only spoke Spanish with residents of Villa Victoria, an affordable housing complex in the South End, he discussed details of the islands they came from, said state Representative Jon Santiago, who joined Kennedy at the stop, and again at Methadone Mile.


“He has such a deep understanding of what’s going on, not just at the local level with respect to, you know, communities of color, but their homes abroad. And this is important when we talk about issues of immigration, particularly nowadays,” Santiago said in a brief interview at Villa Victoria Saturday.

On Monday, Kennedy had another of those conversations with Carmen Pola, 80, who encountered Kennedy Monday as he wrapped up his tour of the South End Community Health Center. In Spanish, they discussed where in Puerto Rico she was originally from. In English she told him the first vote she cast was for his great uncle, John F. Kennedy, for president, back when she was living in California.

“I like a candidate who will come to the people,” Pola, a community activist, told a reporter afterward. “The other one — nowhere to be seen,” she added, referring to Markey. “People get power, and they disappear.”

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@