scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Climate activists are furious over Kennedy’s challenge to Markey

Senator Ed Markey spoke as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Congressional Democrats listened during a news conference on Feb. Getty Images

Two days after he learned for certain that Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III was coming for his Senate seat, Edward J. Markey was greeted like a rock star by thousands of cheering young people during Boston’s Climate Strike.

The moment captured the intensity of feeling for Markey among climate activists. Young and old, in Massachusetts and around the country, they view Markey as a steadfast champion — the steadfast champion — of the most urgent issue facing not just the country but all humanity.

And they are furious that Kennedy is trying to end their guy’s congressional career.

“It just confounds explanation to me, if he actually cares about the future of this planet, that he feels like it would be a good idea to launch a primary challenge against the guy who’s leading on this issue,” said Craig S. Altemose, executive director of 350 Mass Action, a statewide climate-focused group that has endorsed Markey. “Seems like it’s just a move that is primarily driven by ego and ambition instead of a thirst for justice.”

Some Democratic Party leaders were worried that Kennedy’s challenge to Markey would sow intraparty division. Perhaps no group better personifies that risk than the base of committed climate activists, a community whose influence within the Democratic electorate has strengthened considerably in recent years.


Kennedy’s primary challenge sparked white-hot anger in activist circles not just here but nationwide.

“Running against Ed Markey is running against the climate change movement,” said Democratic Representative Ro Khanna, a high-profile progressive lawmaker from California who is backing Markey. “I like Joe Kennedy. I just don’t know why he would choose to run against the climate change movement.”

“I’ve just been trying to deal with really kind of bereft young people,” who are passionate about the Green New Deal, a climate change plan on which Markey has taken a leadership role this year, said Bill McKibben, a writer and national environmental figure in a recent interview on WGBH. He called Kennedy’s primary bid “a gut punch to those of us in the environmental movement.”


A Kennedy campaign spokeswoman, Emily Kaufman, said he respects Markey’s “voice” on climate.

“He is also very proud of his own record and looks forward to engaging with voters on this and many other issues in the months to come,” Kaufman said.

Markey is capitalizing on his climate profile. He greeted Kennedy’s formal announcement of his Senate campaign by challenging his opponents to a climate-only debate in early November. The Kennedy campaign is so far noncommittal — a point Markey’s campaign keeps bringing up, while noting that the two other challengers in the race — labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and business executive Steve Pemberton have agreed to participate.

Kennedy “is happy to debate climate,” but also wants to address other key issues, a campaign spokeswoman has said. “We look forward to sitting down with the other campaigns to hash out a robust debate schedule for the months to come.”

Markey, 73, has been at the leading edge of environmental advocacy since his early years in Congress, working to combat pollution and foster clean energy, his supporters in the environmental community say.

As early as 1980, he was speaking about a “future of clean energy” and the need for solar energy at the Democratic National Convention.

Teaming up earlier this year with progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the sweeping climate change proposal known as the Green New Deal once again proved to his supporters his leadership and devotion. It also helped earn Markey a coveted endorsement earlier this month from the New York congresswoman.


“If he’s not there, we are not going to have very critical deeply vested expertise and leadership to take us forward,” the 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez told reporters. “We do not have time to go through the learning curve.”

After it came out, Kennedy quickly signed on to the Green New Deal, too, but climate activists say that does not bring him into the same league as Markey, who worked with Ocasio-Cortez to write and introduce a nonbinding resolution that lays out a plan to remake the American economy with a federal jobs guarantee and an aggressive, 10-year campaign to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

Some Democrats are skeptical of Markey’s renown, pointing to his spotty record of turning green rhetoric into reality. Environmentalists, for instance, praise the landmark 2009 bill he co-wrote that would have capped emissions through 2050 for several earth-warming greenhouse gases and established a system for trading emissions allowances.

But plenty of Democrats see that bill, known as Waxman-Markey, as a colossal political failure. The bill passed the House, but collapsed in the Senate, which Democrats controlled at the time. Vulnerable House Democrats got hammered by Republicans for supporting the complex bill, and dozens of them lost their seats in the subsequent 2010 midterms.


“Passing a bill in the House without a strategy in the Senate is bad politics,” said one former Democratic member of Congress who lost his seat after supporting the bill. “The environmental movement lost 40 allies [in Congress] and was set back for at least a decade because of that.”

Markey has encountered some political trouble with the Green New Deal as well. He, along with most of the rest of the Senate Democratic caucus, ended up voting “present” on a procedural motion to bring up a resolution on the Green New Deal, after Republicans forced a vote.

Republicans engineered the move to try to force Democratic senators on the record about whether they support the Green New Deal, and to embarrass Democrats by showing a lack of support for the plan among moderates in the party. Democrats protested that the vote was a political stunt and an inappropriate step to take before a single hearing or minute of expert testimony had taken place. Voting “present” was how Markey and Democrats sought to sidestep the Republican gambit.

“They want to sabotage this movement that is calling for action that threatens their fossil-fuel friends,” Markey said at the time.

Now the movement is strategizing how to ensure Kennedy doesn’t sabotage Markey. Prominent environmental groups are showering Markey with endorsements, including the Sierra Club and the youth-powered Sunrise Movement. Activists predict Markey will see a huge influx of volunteer hours and money from their ranks. Environment Massachusetts, an advocacy group which has 125,000 members and supporters in the state, committed to spend $5 million to support Markey’s reelection bid.


Kennedy has a 95 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, a leading environmental group. (The environmental group’s political arm has endorsed Markey, who has a 94 percent lifetime score with the group.) He has co-sponsored numerous bills seeking to curb climate change along with other environmental protection legislation.

“I sense a real passion,” said Representative Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York, who has worked with Kennedy on legislation relating to funding research and development of new wind energy technologies, among other environment-focused measures. Kennedy has been focused on trying to harness the “innovation economy,” advancing clean energy in a way that creates jobs and growth, said Tonko, who is chairman of the Environment and Climate subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce panel, on which Kennedy serves.

Close to home, Kennedy has been an important ally in promoting the development of offshore wind projects and other green-energy initiatives on the South Coast “for years,” said New Bedford City Councilor Hugh Dunn. Most recently, Kennedy has been pushing to make sure the giant 84-turbine wind farm Vineyard Wind plans to construct south of Martha’s Vineyard actually gets built, he said.

Environmentalists don’t see any comparison to Markey, though. “He has a perfectly fine voting record,” but hasn’t shown himself to be a real leader on the environment, said Wendy Wendlandt, senior vice president and political director for Environment America, the parent group for Environment Massachusetts. Both groups are backing Markey.

“I want somebody who wakes up in the morning as worried as I am about the future of the planet and is doing whatever they can do to solve it. And we have always thought that Senator Markey is that guy.”

Globe reporter Zoe Greenberg contributed to this report. Victoria McGrane can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.