EASTON — Senator Edward J. Markey and challenger Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney, faced off at a forum Sunday on climate change and other environmental issues, tangling over the strength of Markey’s legislative record and the importance of the Green New Deal.
The event, hosted by Stonehill College, was the first substantive policy discussion in the marquee race, but the perceived Democratic primary front-runner — Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III — was notably absent. He declined to participate because of the timing, among other reasons.
Kennedy’s absence gave Liss-Riordan plenty of space to showcase formidable debate skills. While she and Markey broadly agree on the issues, she criticized Markey for failing to win more legislative successes in his 43 years in Washington, said the Green New Deal he champions isn’t specific enough, and hit him for taking thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from an investment company that she says backs a controversial natural gas project in Weymouth.
“I appreciate the work that you did 10 years ago in proposing a bill that didn’t succeed, even when the Democrats had both the House and the Senate,” Liss-Riordan said, referring to the 2009 bill he co-wrote would have capped emissions through 2050 for several earth-warming greenhouse gases and established a system for trading emissions allowances.
“It took 10 years before here we are having this discussion again. It’s been a long time, there’s been a lot of talk and not much action and that is why I think we need new leaders in Congress,” she continued.
Markey demonstrated a deep knowledge of environmental policy, from the cost of building nuclear power plants to ideas on how to lower the carbon footprint of agriculture. He argued that the Green New Deal — a non-binding resolution Markey authored with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — is helping to galvanize a political “revolution” that will force Republicans to either support legislation to curb climate change or voters will oust them from office.
“Republicans have a chance to change, to work on a bipartisan basis, to be able to put these policies in place, but if they don’t, they are going to be changed, Donald Trump is going to be changed,” Markey said.
Liss-Riordan, 50, sought to draw distinctions with Markey, 73. She enthusiastically embraced Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s promise to immediately ban fracking if she wins the White House. Markey urged a more cautious approach to avoid skyrocketing prices for consumers, arguing that the “technological revolution” unleashed by the Green New Deal will move quickly to make natural gas obsolete.
“We will transform our economy. We will eliminate the need for fracking,” he said. “And it is going to happen much more quickly than anyone believes.”
Liss-Riordan used the fracking discussion as an opening to criticize Markey for taking thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from BlackRock, an investment firm she said is a major investor in the company pushing to build a natural gas compressor station in Weymouth.
“Why don’t you call up your friends at BlackRock and ask them to get out of Weymouth?” she shot at Markey.
The Malden Democrat, unfazed, pointed to his very public protests against the proposal. “I do not have to apologize for my fight with those communities” to prevent the compressor station, he said.
In perhaps the biggest revelation of the night, Markey said he would support ending the filibuster, an arcane Senate rule that requires most matters to win 60 votes to advance — an evolution from his previous statements.
Kennedy and Liss-Riordan had previously stated their support for ending the rule, a cause that has been embraced by many on the left who argue that if the rule remains in place, Democrats will not be able to move their policy priorities even if they win control of Washington.
Markey stopped short of an all-out embrace, but said that if Democrats don’t win 60 Senate seats or Republicans don’t have a change of heart, he would support ending it to “implement the changes that are necessary to save the planet.”
Markey, who pitched the idea of a November climate debate when Kennedy entered the race, said afterwards he was “disappointed” Kennedy did not participate in the forum, which was moderated by Steve Kornacki of NBC News and MSNBC.
Kennedy’s campaign announced a few weeks ago that the candidate was happy to participate in a climate-focused debate, but said their preference was to hold it sometime in 2020, and in a community already suffering from climate change consequences such as rising seas.
All three campaigns have been meeting to hammer out a mutually-agreed upon schedule for a series of debates.
“As we have repeatedly said, Joe is happy to debate climate. But he believes debates should be a collaborative effort between all campaigns, not organized by one candidate without meaningful input from the others,” said Kennedy campaign spokeswoman Emily Kaufman.