Ed Markey, Joe Kennedy, and Waiting-Your-Turn Politics in Massachusetts

Steven Senne/AP Photo

Senator Ed Markey addresses a rally for immigration rights in February 2017, as Representative Joe Kennedy looks on.


The baby boomer/millennial test of wills in the House, most notably between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has overshadowed the impatience of Generation X office seekers with the gerontocracy that presides over the Senate. The chamber’s transformation into a hornet’s nest of Trumpian enablers is emboldening younger candidates who no longer want to wait for these solons to move on.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 77, and his politics of legislative obstructionism will face challenges this year from Democrat Amy McGrath, 44, a retired Marine fighter pilot, and potentially 40-year-old Matt Jones, a beloved sports talk radio host who happens to be quite progressive (he’s considering a run). Maine’s Susan Collins, 66, is feeling the heat on her decision to back Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court from several Democrats, including 47-year-old Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

It is easy to cheer for youthful challengers who would upend the stale Senate status quo, but what about races where the philosophical differences are not as stark? In Massachusetts, one of the fiercest generational battles in American politics is already under way. Representative Joe Kennedy III, 38, is contemplating a run for the Senate seat currently held by Ed Markey, 73, who has served more than 40 years in Congress. Markey also has two other Democratic challengers: Steve Pemberton, a corporate human resources executive, and Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney.

Kennedy recently commissioned a poll that showed him beating Markey by a small margin. A “Jump in, Joe” grassroots drafting effort is also nudging him along. During his nearly four decades in the House, Markey has faced no serious challengers. He won his Senate seat easily in a low-turnout 2013 special election featuring a little-known Republican opponent after John Kerry became Obama’s second secretary of state.

The irony of this generational challenge is that it’s Markey who holds the advantage on issues that galvanize young voters, especially the climate crisis. Few Bay State politicians can match Markey’s climate and energy experience. His 37-year record in the House and six in the Senate includes passing a 2009 cap-and-trade plan. (It failed to pass the Senate.) He further burnished his climate and energy bona fides—and took quite a bit of heat—by co-championing ambitious Green New Deal legislation with Ocasio-Cortez, the exuberant congresswoman from New York and one of the highest-profile slayers of white-male incumbents.

The Markey/Ocasio-Cortez alliance insulates the junior Bay State senator from the charge that he is a man past his time. AOC arrived at the right moment to provide the Green New Deal with the right blend of vigor and visibility than it might otherwise not have received had Markey been flanked by a representative sample of his male colleagues.

“To say Ed Markey is not the right guy in this very narrow window for the climate is bordering on heresy,” Craig Altemose, executive director of the climate advocacy group Better Future Project, told the Boston Herald. He described Kennedy’s prospects as more about “ambition than justice.”

In Congress, Kennedy has not actively sought out the limelight, keeping his head down in his work. He has been a strong advocate on STEM education and mental-health and substance abuse issues. But he’s also been a marijuana skeptic, who only came out for federal legalization of marijuana shortly before Massachusetts opened its first recreational pot shops last year. He has been an outspoken advocate for LGBT issues. (His Boston Pride Parade Committee is responsible for the grassroots drafting effort.)

He does display the Kennedy gift for speechifying, delivering a strong rebuttal to President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address. His powerful denunciations of the Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act have garnered millions of views online and recall the passion of his great-uncle Ted Kennedy on health care issues. And Kennedy is often out and about in his district, where Markey has been criticized for keeping a low in-state profile.

The Massachusetts political establishment is already closing ranks around Markey. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who threw her support to Markey months ago, sealed the deal with an endorsement video—calling him “a true progressive” and “Big Oil’s worst nightmare.” Interestingly, both Kennedy and Markey have endorsed Warren for president, and both gave speeches on her behalf at her formal announcement in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Most of the Massachusetts House delegation has endorsed Markey as well, with the exception of Representatives Katherine Clark (who won a special election for Markey’s House seat when he moved to the Senate), Seth Moulton, and Ayanna Pressley (who both upset longtime incumbents).

But endorsements of politicians by politicians don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Most Bay State establishment types got behind former Representative Mike Capuano (with the notable exceptions of Markey and Warren, who stayed neutral), and Pressley, a Boston city councilor, beat him easily.

The prospect of a Markey-Kennedy matchup has already roiled Massachusetts progressives, particularly people like Altemose, who see Markey as a climate champion on the cusp of real power if Democrats can push out Trump in 2020. Many Democrats would prefer to see Kennedy run for governor in three years, although others see a future presidential bid in the making. In a preview of possible dirty politics to come, a Markey staffer had to apologize and walk back remarks about the Kennedys after he tweeted that the congressman should stay out of the race and focus on his family’s “mental health issues.” Markey also apologized.

Kennedy seems to be signaling that he’ll be a major factor in the next Senate opening in Massachusetts, whether it’s Markey or Warren. If Warren wins the Democratic nomination and presidency, her Senate seat would open up, and Kennedy musing about a statewide campaign now could merely be a signal to other ambitious Massachusetts pols that he intends to take over what was his great-uncle Ted’s seat for nearly 47 years. That special election could even happen in November 2020, if Warren decides to bet on herself and resigns her seat after securing the nomination. That would allow a Democrat to most likely occupy that seat from the time a potential President Warren takes the nomination, instead of a temporary replacement installed by Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. And the fact that mechanisms exist for Warren’s opening to be decided by special election in 2020 likely explains the timing of Kennedy’s whisper campaign.

The rumored Markey-Kennedy election shapes up to be as much about change versus experience as it is about the hold that the Kennedy mystique—or what some call the Kennedy privilege—still has in Massachusetts. The Kennedys continue to loom large in a place where a significant cohort of older voters revere the family’s legacy of public service—and can remember something that Joe Kennedy’s Uncle Ted did for them.

What’s important to remember is that Massachusetts is a small state that is accustomed to producing politicians who punch above their weight in national politics—and a hyper-talented bench of Bay State Generation X politicians is not going to sit around and quietly contemplate the future while waiting for a seat to open up.

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