The contentious Senate primary in Massachusetts between Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Sen. Ed Markey, as it enters its final weeks, is turning into a contest not just of personalities but between two of the most salient issues for Democratic voters this year: climate change, which is Markey’s signature issue, and racial justice, which Kennedy says his opponent has neglected during his four decades in Congress.
In an interview on Wednesday with Yahoo News, Kennedy accused Markey of doing nothing to help a couple whose 20-year-old son, a Black college football player named D.J. Henry, was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2010.
“I worked with them to push the Justice Department in Washington and in New York to try to file federal charges,” Kennedy said. “They met with Senator Markey shortly after they met with me. They met over lunch. They felt like they were dismissed. They were insulted. He referred to Black people during the meeting as colored and he never followed up.”
Kennedy’s attack on Markey comes as the incumbent, who at 74 is almost twice the age of the 39-year-old Kennedy, has surprisingly gained traction with young voters who are drawn to his involvement in fighting climate change. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was an early endorser of Markey because of his work pushing the Green New Deal, and some recent polls have shown Markey leading among younger voters. Polling overall has been infrequent and indicates a tight race.
Markey has attacked Kennedy, the grandson of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, for running on his family name. Kennedy responded to these accusations of entitlement with a press conference Monday where he stood with Black political and community leaders in Boston and defended his family’s record of fighting for racial justice, while accusing Markey of neglecting the issue.
Markey has acknowledged some mistakes in the past. In fact, he apologized to the parents of D.J. Henry after the man’s father posted a video two weeks ago accusing Markey of being the only elected official in Massachusetts “who didn’t act” and saying that Markey was dismissive and did in fact use the term “colored.” “It’s been 10 years, and we’ve never heard one thing from your office to this day, even as you know we are trying to reopen our son’s case,” Danroy Henry Sr. said.
Kennedy is pairing his criticism of Markey’s handling of the D.J. Henry killing with attacks on Markey’s voting record on racial issues, reaching back to his opposition to desegregating public schools through forced busing in the 1970s. “Ed Markey was voting to keep Black kids out of white classrooms,” Kennedy said on Monday. His campaign released a video after his event on Monday using footage from when his uncle, former Sen. Ted Kennedy, was attacked by an enraged mob of white parents in Boston for his support for busing in 1974.
Kennedy is also hitting Markey for voting to protect institutions like Bob Jones University, which had banned interracial dating, from losing tax-exempt status in 1981.
The Kennedy-Markey race is attracting a lot of attention in the state. Over a million mail-in ballots have been requested ahead of the Sept. 1 primary election.
Kennedy also said Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for him to draw contrasts with Markey.
“COVID-19 has also limited our ability to actually show those differences,” Kennedy said during an interview on “Skullduggery,” a Yahoo News podcast. “You can't get out and about and show the type of retail-based campaign what it means when you bring people in and build the momentum and ask people to be part of something.”
A campaign fought online rather than through in-person events has advantages for an incumbent who is trying to fend off a young challenger like Kennedy who is eager to demonstrate a willingness to meet voters all over the state. And when ideological progressives latch on to a signature issue like climate, as has happened in Markey’s case, that kind of enthusiasm spreads more easily on social media.
Markey’s attacks on Kennedy have ramped up lately, and during a recent debate Markey challenged Kennedy to tell his father, former Rep. Joseph Kennedy Jr., not to use $2.8 million in leftover campaign funds from his time in elected office to fund a super-PAC supporting Joe Kennedy III’s campaign.
The Markey campaign released a video on Twitter after that debate in which they showed Kennedy on the bow of a yacht, with the tune “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates playing. “Free advice for Joe Kennedy,” the Markey campaign tweeted. “Don’t rely on the old man’s money.”
A week ago, Markey released a three-minute video touting his work on behalf of working-class people and his climate change plan that ended with a rebuke of one of former President John F. Kennedy’s most famous lines: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Markey turned that line around, saying, “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out. We did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
The slickly produced video has been viewed 3 million times.
Kennedy, in his event on Monday, said he was “proud of [his family’s] contribution and their history, but I recognize that that work is theirs. It is not mine.”
“That is what my family taught me about legacy,” he said. “A legacy is earned.”
Kennedy argued that he has earned trust with “struggling” communities by spending time working for them and listening to them.
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