In the Democratic Senate primary, Massachusetts has two strong choices for an advocate to champion a progressive message in the upper chamber of Congress. In a race marked more by personality distinctions than policy discrepancies, incumbent U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and his challenger U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III both seek to stake a claim as the better bannerman to continue a Bay State legacy of progressive leadership in the Senate.
That phrase — "progressive leadership" — has come up a lot. As the candidates have jousted over who is more bona fide left than the other, the battle has not so much been over how their stances differ — objectively, not much — but who is best equipped to advance the ball on their similar positions.
Both candidates support Medicare for All. Both have co-sponsored legislation in their respective chambers to study reparations proposals. Sen. Markey is the Senate author of the Green New Deal, a comprehensive package aimed at combating climate change and investing heavily in the renewable energy sector, while Rep. Kennedy is a co-sponsor of the plan in the House of Representatives.
With both hopefuls planting their flags well into progressive territory, the contest has often fomented a narcissism of small differences. A critique of Rep. Kennedy raised forcefully by Sen. Markey in their debates is that the congressman has come around to their mostly shared positions too gingerly, with the incumbent hitting his challenger for not jumping on-board for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal as quickly as he did. Rep. Kennedy has defended his more deliberate embrace of these policies as contingent on tweaks that improved on initial drafts of these ambitious proposals, though the congressman has also been dinged by some on the left for his slow roll to back marijuana legalization as well.
Arguably, however, the capacity to evolve on important issues in real time is an important one for candidates positioning themselves as progressive thought leaders in the Senate — a notion that Sen. Markey would likely affirm, given his opposition in the 1970s to integrating Boston public schools via busing and yes votes on the 1994 crime bill and the Iraq War during his long tenure in the House.
Vigor and experience have become two crucially confounding variables that add up somewhat awkwardly around this race's unique contours.
Rep. Kennedy is looking to tap in to a burgeoning trend in the Democratic Party of young, energetic challengers seeking to pressure-test and build out from the party's foundation. As a four-term congressman with a surname like his, however, Rep. Kennedy falls more on the side of establishment than insurgent compared to the progenitors of the wave he hopes to ride.
Sen. Markey, meanwhile, is running on a considerably longer record whereby he lays claim to a rare air of constancy for a progressive voice in Congress. Indeed, Sen. Markey, the dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, has represented the Bay State in D.C. for nearly half a century. He is, however, a relative newcomer to the Senate seat he's defending, which he first won in a 2013 special election. As such, he's a senator with vast congressional experience but with no ranking member seats on any of the committees he serves.
Given all this, the real question for voters shouldn't be a calculation of time served and policy minutiae; it's simply asking who would be the more effective and dependable voice to go to bat for the state's progressive values in Washington.
The Democratic Party is facing some growing pains. The 2018 congressional midterms, characterized by a youthful insurgency signaling their impatience with the old guard, were re-energizing in some ways, but also widened the ideological chasm over which its progressive and establishment wings skirmish for the soul of the party. Democrats' effectiveness at the national level requires closing that gap, or at least building a bridge over it — and Rep. Kennedy is the candidate best suited to that job.
In a race that's all about progressive leadership, what that really entails is both a progressive vision and the ability to see it through in Washington. Progress on crucial issues like environmental protection, criminal justice reform and economic inequality is stalled by deep polarization that has roiled factions within the Democrats and the two parties in general. To Sen. Markey's credit, he has been a fierce advocate on these issues during his long congressional tenure. The aforementioned polarization standing in the way of progress, however, can't be resolved in one day or one election cycle. If Massachusetts is going to continue its long history of leading on this front through its Senate delegation, it's going to require clear voices with staying power. As younger energy has reinvigorated House Democrats, new blood will also be necessary in the Senate to move the ball forward on the Democratic agenda, and new blood that comes with legislative experience is an asset that shouldn't be overlooked.
Rep. Kennedy has also made an argument from presence — that is, what you do in Washington is important, but so is being informed by the voices of the constituents you represent. Rep. Kennedy has pitched himself as the candidate that has done more to stay in touch with Bay Staters' struggles on the ground — an argument that has some substance. A Boston Globe review of travel schedules showed Sen. Markey as the member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation who spends the least time in the state, spending 22 fewer nights in Massachusetts than Sen. Elizabeth Warren last year, when she was running for president. Sen. Markey defended his schedule, saying, "I believe that I have balanced my time ... effectively."
Some in the Berkshires might disagree. Rep. Kennedy has spoken candidly on the benefit of meeting constituents where they are, including in Gateway Cities like Pittsfield. During a recent campaign stop, this seemed to resonate with voters in the city.
"It's a nice, refreshing surprise to see politicians checking in with business owners, especially on Main Street," Lindsey Tuller, co-owner of the Berkshire General Store on North Street, told The Eagle after Rep. Kennedy stopped in for a cup of coffee and a brief chat. "They're trying to figure out a way to help. He wanted to hear what I needed."
Another city resident that day, raising transit and homelessness concerns in the area, similarly praised the congressman's presence.
"I love Ed Markey. But, don't get me wrong. He's been there for 40 years, and we need transportation now," said Claudia Cass, of Pittsfield. "Joe's been here."
The promise of a senator that lends an ear to constituents and brings an energized voice to Washington makes a strong case for the kind of progressive leadership that Massachusetts needs. The Eagle endorses Rep. Joe Kennedy III for Senate.