WASHINGTON — “No-nukes’’ activists who were threatening to disrupt the 1980 Democratic National Convention delivered an ultimatum: Grant their key ally, Representative Edward Markey, a prime-time speaking slot, or they would submit enough signatures to force Markey onto the ballot as vice presidential nominee.
Party bosses blinked. So for 10 minutes, the crowd at Madison Square Garden and network audiences around the country listened to a 35-year-old congressman with a black suit, a Kennedy accent, and hair shaggy enough to evoke a hint of rebellion. He implored the nation to shut down its nuclear reactors, ramp up solar energy, and end foreign oil dependence.
“I stand here tonight for the tens of millions of Americans who want this energy message to resound across this land,” declared Markey, as delegates clutched green Jimmy Carter balloons.
Three decades later, Markey is no longer the precocious newcomer from working-class Malden. He is the establishment, a House insider and practical lawmaker who pursues liberal goals with patience, cross-party relationships, and compromise. After 36 years in office, Markey is the gray dean of the state’s delegation, as inextricably linked with the House of Representatives as are the Capitol steps.
The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, said she counted Markey among the “disrupters’’ when she arrived in Congress, in the mid-1980s. Pelosi describes him differently now.
“He’s operational,’’ she said, meaning it as a compliment. He knows, she explained in a Globe interview, “how to get the job done.’’
Markey never succeeded in shutting down the nuclear power industry. But he has found other ways to make a mark.
He amassed a deep pile of measures affecting our everyday lives: how we watch television or use cellphones and the Internet, when we move our clocks for daylight saving, and the energy efficiency of our household appliances and cars.
Yet Markey has grown restless in the House, with an uncertain timetable for him to gain greater power. Republicans took control in 2010, making his longevity far less important in a highly polarized chamber that is a breeding ground of minority party frustration.
What’s more, Markey’s path to a major chairmanship is blocked by his own team. Two of the five House Democrats with more seniority than Markey sit ahead of him on the Energy and Commerce Committee. So even if Democrats regained control, there is little assurance that Markey would soon win the gavel.
Before announcing his bid for Senate, Markey had a pivotal conversation with Representative Henry Waxman, the California Democrat with more seniority who chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee when Democrats ran the House. When, Markey wanted to know, would Waxman retire and give Markey a shot at leading?
Waxman promised Markey that his time would come, without being specific. In a subsequent Globe interview, Waxman made it clear that he had no retirement date in mind. He threw up his hands and sang, “Que Sera, Sera.”
Markey evidently sought a stronger commitment. Friends say he expected that his hard work in the House trenches would pay off with more influence by this point in his career.
“He’s always told me that it takes seniority to get something done,” said Chris Matthews, the television commentator who has been close friends with Markey since the 1980s, when Matthews worked for Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., the former House speaker. “You work very hard in your 20s, your 30s, your 40s, your 50s, just to develop seniority enough so that in your 60s you can get things done.”
Markey, in an interview, downplayed the role such calculations played in his decision to run for Senate, though he acknowledged feeling stunted in a chamber “controlled by Tea Party Republicans.”
“I was principally interested in having the maximum impact on the issues that I cared the most about,” he said of his decision. “The bottom line is, if I am successful, I will be in the majority in the Senate in June 2013.”
Markey is attempting an unprecedented move. No one in American history has served as long in the House and then jumped to the Senate. But if he were to win, his Capitol Hill experience in managing outsized egos could prove beneficial in the upper chamber. He has grown adept at melding the ambitions of those around him with his own goals, his friends say.
If you want to march a bill through a House subcommittee, Markey is your man. He knows where to find common interest with Republicans, when to appeal to a wavering Democrat’s parochial concerns, and how to reach into the back of the parliamentary book to slide in a late amendment.
When he wants to attract attention from a colleague or the press, he is not afraid to sing a corny song in a committee meeting, carry a toy crown to mock a GOP budget proposal, or recite a cringe-inducing Shakespeare parody on the House floor. (“B-2, or not B-2. . . . Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous expense, or to take arms against a sea of deficits. . . . ’’)
“He’s a terrible singer. He’s a terrible poet,” said Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who has counted himself Markey’s friend for 28 years. “But he gets your attention. If you laugh, and then you start listening to the rest of it, from his point of view, it makes sense.’’
Markey, who had never been to Washington before his 1976 election, insists his approach to the job has not changed since he served in the Massachusetts Legislature in the 1970s: Stoke pressure from the outside while recruiting supporters on the inside.
“Legislating is not for sprinters,” he said in an interview in his Washington office, adorned with framed copies of bills, a vintage environmental voting guide, and a giant solar panel.
His own rise has been marked by evolution, not all of it gradual. Before Markey became one of Congress’s staunchest liberals, he launched his career with positions on key social issues that helped win support from the conservative Catholics in his Malden district, favoring school prayer and constitutional amendments to end busing and outlaw abortion. Within a decade, before a short-lived campaign for US Senate in 1984, Markey would disavow all three stances.
When the reversals became a political liability in the 1984 contest, Markey staged a news conference with fellow liberals to deny he was a closet conservative on social issues. He explained that his shift on abortion — a switch that came three months before he entered the Senate race — stemmed from a realization that he was “confusing my personal views with my public policy point of view.”
In a recent interview, he declined multiple opportunities to discuss his social-issue shifts in detail.
“For 30 years, I have taken the progressive position, the liberal position, on each and every issue,” he said. “I just evolved.”
Now he routinely wins endorsements from abortion rights groups and is never called conservative. He has amassed a voting record that makes him among the most liberal Democrats in the House, even though he supported the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and, in a 2002 vote, the invasion of Iraq, a vote he later came to regret.
Markey’s trajectory in the House was shaped by O’Neill, who, as majority leader, used his power to make sure at least one member of the Massachusetts delegation was placed on every key committee.
For Markey, that meant Energy and Commerce, a powerful panel that at the time had jurisdiction over Wall Street, oil policy, and telecommunications.
Americans, reeling from the Middle East oil embargo and later the Iranian hostage crisis and the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, were confronting new energy debates. Markey’s outspokenness on nuclear energy and arms proliferation captured waves of attention.
Markey broadened his portfolio when he became chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee, in 1987, just before the world of rotary phones and three television networks gave way to cellphones and the Internet. He recognized that the technological revolution would bring opportunities to break up monopolies.
He carried a briefcase-sized satellite dish, then available only in Japan, to a committee meeting in 1991. The dish was the future, he contended, a way to bypass the cable industry’s tethered grip on American homes.
Within a year, Markey’s bill to usher in the satellite industry became the only law during George H. W. Bush’s presidency to overcome a veto. At the time, the career highlight, memorialized on Markey’s office wall with a framed copy of the veto message, resonated more strongly on Capitol Hill than in Malden. But evidence of its impact sprouts from rooftops across America, even if most of the price controls Markey once boasted of were quickly abolished.
To help move the Internet from its infancy to adolescence, Markey co-wrote the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with Representative Jack Fields, a Texas Republican, which coaxed cable companies to build broadband networks, the platform for high-speed data regarded as crucial to the World Wide Web explosion.
“None of it was possible — Google, Hulu, YouTube — none of it was possible before the 1996 Telecom Act,” Markey said. “It required broadband in order to make the business models possible.”
Markey may have embraced the future, but he sometimes did a questionable job of predicting it. Gadgets that were greeted with euphoria in the mid-1990s have already become retro, almost kitsch, including the digital pen on Markey’s wall, used by President Clinton to sign the telecom bill.
Another big Markey priority in the bill, the subject of numerous press releases and guest columns, turned out to be a flop. The V-Chip, a switch implanted in televisions designed to let parents screen out violent programming with the click of a button, is still required in every set, though specialists say it is virtually never used by consumers.
The bill’s larger legacy on television and the Internet is mixed. Consumers have access to hundreds of channels, and high-speed Internet, but at a significant cost. Markey lost battles to retain more rigid price controls.
“The cable bills are astronomical,” said Mark Cooper, research director at the Consumer Federation of America.
Cooper blames the industry, Clinton, and the Republicans, who then controlled the House, for overpowering Markey’s intentions.
“We never got the competition they promised us that would replace the regulation they were taking away,” he said.
Though Markey was continually hailed as an ally by consumer groups, his transition into one of Congress’s most influential voices in telecommunications helped him quietly build one of the state’s largest fund-raising operations. Communications and electronics interests contributed $2.4 million of the $12 million he raised between 1989 and 2012 — his biggest source of industry money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, Markey refused money from political action committees, but he lifted the self-imposed ban in 2003.
Though he readily accepts corporate money for his campaign coffers, at other times Markey has seemed to relish poking powerful interests in the eye. He was especially aggressive with British Petroleum executives after the 2010 oil spill, forcing the company to release live footage that became the popular “spillcam,” and questioning executives to help build pressure for the company’s $4.5 billion settlement.
Although the episode demonstrated a knack for grabbing the spotlight, Markey also has shown patience and hard work on far less glamorous projects. It took him more than two decades, for instance, to designate Revere Beach, which bills itself as “America’s First Public Beach,’’ a historic landmark. His colleagues took notice of what seemed a quixotic effort.
“I started calling him Revere Beach because he just kept banging away and banging away,” said George Miller, a long-serving California Democrat who is close with Markey. “But he got it done.”
Markey had pushed for treaties to combat global warming for more than two decades before 2009, when he was picked by Pelosi and Waxman to help craft a bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
It was a moment that could help shape America’s energy agenda. He met with industry leaders and opponents, oil state Republicans, coal and steel state Democrats. The result was a measure known as “cap-and-trade.’’ Stuffed with incentives for alternative energy projects, it would have required companies to buy the rights to emit greenhouse gases and set hard targets for pollution reduction. It also contained a notable provision to enhance loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants — a tough pill for a politician who staked his career against the industry.
On the eve of the vote in the House, Markey and his staff attended the annual White House picnic, where they continued to strategize with Obama administration figures and lobby congressmen. When it was over, Markey, Waxman, James Clyburn, then majority whip, and their top deputies met late into the night with Pelosi for a final strategy session, said Gerard Waldron, a former Markey deputy who attended the meeting.
The next morning, Markey showed up with coffee and a list of 20 members who were persuadable or whose support was shaky, even as the bill was hitting the floor. They set to work.
“This is nothing but retail,” Markey told Waldron.
The bill squeaked through, 219-212, on a summer Friday evening, setting off elation among environmental advocates.
But the euphoria would be temporary when, as months went by, it became clear that the Senate — where the health care debate consumed enormous political capital — was not going to act on greenhouse gases.
“There are risks in trying to pass big bills,” Markey said. “The one thing that I think everyone will tell you is that I always try to take on the toughest fights.”
By 2010, Republicans had regained control of the House. Markey found himself again in the minority, his global warming committee abolished, Waxman still above him on the ladder. When it appeared President Obama would elevate John F. Kerry to secretary of state, an open Senate seat beckoned.
Even a new member in the Senate majority has more power than a minority member of the House, explained Barney Frank, the recently retired Newton representative.
“Look at the Sunday morning talk shows,” Frank said, estimating that senators outnumber House members as guests by 10 to 1. “That’s where you influence policy.”
Markey, who had flirted with the idea of running again for Senate for decades, made his decision. He would try to leave the House.
Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.