Sen. Ed Markey at a rally for the Green New Deal. Photo (cc) 2019 by Victoria Pickering.

Now that U.S. Ed Markey has survived a Democracy primary challenge by U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, I want to offer a few observations. I didn’t say much during the campaign because I’ve never met Kennedy, and because it didn’t strike me that the outcome would make much difference in terms of policy. Kennedy probably would have made a perfectly fine senator. But, like many liberals and progressives, I didn’t think his decision to run against Markey made much sense except in terms of sheer personal ambition and a cynical calculation that the Kennedy name was all he needed.

I covered Markey for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn back in the 1980s, including his toughest re-election fight, in 1984. That’s when Markey decided to run for the Senate following Paul Tsongas’ announcement that he would be leaving because of ill health. At the last minute, though, Markey got cold feet, pulled out and announced he’d run for re-election to the House instead. Most of the Democrats who were running for Markey’s seat immediately dropped out. But Sam Rotondi, a state senator from Winchester, decided to stay in. (John Kerry won the Senate seat, by the way.)

Rotondi ran a spirited race, but the power of incumbency and Markey’s considerable skills as a politician were too much to overcome. You may have heard that the COVID pandemic put Kennedy at a disadvantage since he’s a better retail politician than Markey. That’s ridiculous. Markey is an excellent one-on-one campaigner and, at 74, his energy seems to be undiminished. And his rapport with young voters, always strong, may have been the difference.

There was a time when the sky seemed to be the limit for Markey. He was a leader in the nuclear-freeze movement of the 1980s, which sought to pressure the Reagan administration to negotiate a no-more-nuclear-weapons deal with the Soviet Union. Some people even talked about him as a future presidential candidate. But his decision to stay in the House in 1984 led to a lowering of his profile, although he continued to be a hard-working legislator in both the House and later the Senate. By the time Kennedy jumped in, Markey was kind of an after-thought, and the challenge forced him not to redefine himself, as lazy pundit spin would have it, but to remind voters of who he is.

The one development in the Markey-Kennedy campaign that didn’t fit what I know about Markey was when the parents of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr. accused him of acting indifferently — even using the term “colored” — at a meeting over the 2010 killing of their son by a white police officer. There was certainly no reason to doubt the Henrys’  account, and I thought it might be the beginning of the end for Markey. For some reason, though, it seemed to have little or no effect.

What did have an effect, in my opinion, was Kennedy’s indefensible decision to attack Markey because internet trolls were saying hateful things about the Kennedys. I was stunned when Kennedy rolled that out at the third debate, and Markey seemed stunned, too. But Kennedy doubled down on it during the final days of the campaign. It came across as desperate, especially when Kennedy and his supporters also cried foul at Markey’s ad that mildly and humorously played off an old John F. Kennedy quote by saying, “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” Given the events of the past four years, JFK would probably agree.

I found it interesting that Kennedy, who’d built a reputation for not relying on his family’s name, went all in and clung to Camelot like a life raft once it became clear that his campaign was in trouble. Unfortunately for him, the number of elderly voters who have side-by-side portraits of Pope John and JFK in their homes is considerably smaller than it used to be.

Frankly, Joe Kennedy never struck me as someone who’s comfortable in his own skin. He has much to contribute — but maybe he ought to consider whether elective office is really the right place for him to make that contribution.

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