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Ed Markey: The milkman's son who broke the rules

By David B. Hilder

Seminars at the Institute of Politics are filled with Harvard students who want to be Congressmen, and you can easily tell who they are. They preface their questions about political strategy with a description of the district they will have to run in, asking the visiting experts how to win "in that kind of district." These men and women are already beginning to chart their political careers as sophomores and juniors in Cambridge, and they want the advice of politicians who have succeeded.

Edward J. Markey, the newly elected U.S. Representative from Massachusetts's Seventh Congressional District, is in some ways not the type of man from whom nascent politicos can derive a great deal of comfort. On the one hand, Ed Markey is a young politician who came from nowhere in the polls to win one of the most confusing and hard-fought Democratic primary battles for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts history. He showed that, in Massachusetts at least, you don't have to enter a campaign with a large electoral base or ties to a powerful political machine or a large bloc of ethnic votes to win. In fact, if the Markey example is any indication, to win a primary you don't even have to spend more money than any of your opponents. But more than anything else, Markey showed the worthlessness of the rules that politicians talk about in Institute of Politics Seminars. That is unsettling for many young politicos here and elsewhere because in most cases their game plans fit the rules.

When Markey announced his candidacy for the Seventh District seat last spring, he was only 29 years old and a second-term representative in the state legislature. During the summer primary campaign, he turned 30, but he was still acutely aware that if elected, he would be perhaps the youngest member of the House. Youth is often an advantage, but in practical terms, the only people who successfully run for Congress at age 29 are either personally wealthy, blessed with a famous name, or are war heroes. Markey was none of these, and most of the politicians in his home town told him that he should wait, rather than run at such an early age.

As Markey tells it, however, the decision to run was almost a now-or-never proposition. Since 1954, the Seventh District has been represented in Congress by Torbert H. Macdonald '40. Macdonald became ill last spring, and there were many reports that he would not run for re-election. In May, he died unexpectedly, and 12 candidates eventually announced that they would run for his seat. But Markey was the first. The reason he decided to stay in the race, despite the presence of several mayors, a state senator, and Macdonald's administrative assistant, was that the re-election rate for Congressmen is usually well over 90 per cent, and Markey knew it might be another 20 years before the seat opened up again.

The situation didn't look good for Markey. He was from Macdonald's home town of Medford, and many of the political elders there had told him he would some day follow Macdonald's footsteps to the Capitol. But not yet, not at age 29. Markey himself felt the superficial differences keenly. Macdonald went to Harvard and Harvard Law School, was captain of the Harvard football team, was the Winthrop House roommate of former president John F. Kennedy '40 and, like Kennedy, was a World War'II Navy veteran. Markey, by contrast, is a milkman's son who went to Boston College and Boston College Law School, and wasn't the captain of anything. Describing his background in these terms, Markey seems almost apologetic.

Markey managed to distinguish himself in that confused field of candidates for the September 14 Democratic primary, mainly through his use of television and radio commercials. Before any of the other candidates took to the airwaves, Markey ran a radio commercial in which Bill Lee, a well-known pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, endorsed him. Those commercials raised his visibility considerably and catapulted him into a position of contending with the top four of the 12 candidates.

But the key factor for Markey was television. While in his second term in the State House, Markey pushed for passage of a bill to eliminate part-time district court judgeships in Massachusetts. Part-time judgeships were lucrative for judges, who were allowed to maintain private law practices, and for politicians, for whom they were patronage gold mines. It was no surprise, then, when the House leadership, under Speaker Thomas McGee of Lynn, fought against Markey's bill. It passed despite their objections, and McGee, known around the State House for his pettiness, gained his revenge by throwing Markey off the Judiciary Committee, and having his desk moved out into the hall.

All this happened last January, and because of it, Markey received the Massachusetts Bar Association's Legislator of the Year award and was praised in many editorial columns. Looking for a theme for an advertising campaign, Markey's political strategists pounced on the Judiciary Committee incident.

Markey's one television commercial opened with a narration of the desk-in-the-hall scene along with a shot of Markey standing in front of a desk placed incongruously in a State House corridor. At the end of the spot, Markey folded his arms across his chest, looking stern and tough. "They may tell me where to sit," he said, "but nobody tells me where to stand."

After that spot first appeared, one of Markey's opponents unsuccessfully copied Markey's tactic. The opponent, State Senator Steven McGrail, ran a film of himself in the State House chamber delivering a speech. He tried to look tough and dramatic, but, lacking the kind of spectacular incident that Markey had focused on, he failed to make a similar impact.

Among the dozen candidates in the Democratic primary, Markey was generally perceived as the second most liberal, Jack Leff, a former state secretary of elder affairs, was known as the candidate who was farthest to the left, but also was viewed as having little chance of winning in the suburban, heavily working-class district. Markey, however, was thought to have a better chance of winning, and had drawn support from several local politicians who were well respected in liberal circles. Perhaps the most prominent Markey supporters were Representative Michael J. Harrington '58, a Democrat who represents the North Shore district next to Markey's, and State Representative Barney Frank '62, a Democrat from the Back Bay who used to work for Harrington.

Because these two well-known politicians with bona fide liberal credentials supported him, Markey soon became known as the liberal who had an outside chance of winning. But on two issues his liberal support nearly fell apart. Markey supports a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion, and opposes busing to achieve racial integration in public schools. He says his abortion position is a matter of conscience, because he thinks abortion is wrong. His busing position is based on his belief that busing doesn't improve the quality of education. Instead, Markey advocates increased funding of inner-city schools and non-discriminatory hiring and assignment policies on the part of local school committees. The abortion and busing issues are volatile in parts of the Seventh District, and Markey's stands on these issues probably lost him few votes.

Markey won the Democratic primary with about 20 per cent of the vote, and Macdonald's administrative assistant finished second with about 16 per cent of the vote. Although in most Massachusetts primaries a candidate's finishing position corresponds directly to the amount of money he spent, Markey broke that rule too. While the candidate who spent the most money finished well behind Markey and the others, Markey, who ranked only fifth in campaign expenditures, finished first. And he was well on his way to Washington, because he faced only token opposition from a weak republican and an even weaker Independent.


Sitting in his new office on the 21st floor of the John F. Kennedy Federal building in Boston last week, Markey still seemed a bit uncomfortable talking about his own career. The week before, he-had visited Washington, D.C. for the first time, and talked with Congressional leaders about committee assignments and how to put together his new staff. Although Markey is aware of the high Congressional re-election rate and could look forward to a long career in Congress if he wants it, he seems to be planning only for the immediate future. Markey said he hadn't really thought about how long he wants to stay in Congress, or what he might want to do above and beyond serving as the Seventh District's Congressman.

Apparently taking to Washington with him the attitude that he says characterized his four-year career in the State House, Markey expects that some of his goals will remain unrealized. "A legislative body is a collective," Markey says. "You can't always pass everything you want. You just work and see what happens."

Looking nervously out of his new office's huge windows, admiring the magnificent view of Boston, Markey seems very much different from most of the ambitious young politicians who spend years planning their congressional races. The fact that his first visit to Washington came only after he was elected to Congress immediately sets him apart from the hundreds of Harvard students who go to the city each summer on prestigious internships. He and his twin younger brothers all owe money to the government for the National Student Defense loans that helped put them through college and law school.

For all these reasons, Markey is persuasive when he says, "There are no rules. "He is living proof, and all those students at the Institute of Politics would do well to remember it. Or maybe, when they want to run for Congress, they should have their desks thrown into the hallway.

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