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After eight months of a United States Senate primary race being defined by policy similarities and friendly jabs, incumbent U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) finally removed the gloves Monday night.
In a debate that marked a shift in a sometimes somnolent campaign, Kennedy and Markey sparred over their respective records and progressive credentials. The normally mild-mannered Markey went after his youthful opponent from the opening bell, accusing him at one point of being “a progressive in name only.”
Kennedy fired back, questioning Markey’s effectiveness even on some of his signature issues, such as climate change and Alzheimer’s disease research. Kennedy also challenged Markey’s “long-standing record of judgement” on racial justice issues, pointing to his vote in favor of the 1994 Crime Bill while he was a member of the U.S. House and his past opposition to busing in order to integrate Boston public schools.
“The laws and the structures that have come down as a boot on the neck of communities of color, those are not an accident,” Kennedy said. “They were deliberate, they were intentional, and they came in by choice. And you might be known for some things in your time in office, Senator — racial justice and criminal justice is not one of them.”
Markey disputed the assertion with fervor throughout the debate, which was hosted by WPRI-TV, Gannett’s Massachusetts publications, and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Markey went after Kennedy’s work as an assistant district attorney under Cape Cod District Attorney Michael D. O’Keefe, a Republican, following his 2009 graduation from Harvard Law School.
“He could’ve worked for anyone,” Markey said. “He decided to go and work for a right-wing Republican who opposes the kind of progressive changes that we’re looking for. That was a choice which Congressman Kennedy made with his legal career. That’s who he worked for. That was not the right place for a progressive to be working.”
“Senator, I’m glad to see that you’re paying attention to these issues now,” Kennedy retorted. “You’ve been in office for 47 years at the state system and the federal system.”
Kennedy said he “had big differences of agreement” with O’Keefe when he worked for him, but defended working in his office.
Still, the pair found few issues they could disagree about. They both expressed support for the reallocation of at least some police department funding to other public services. They both said they wanted to abolish the electoral college. And they both said they’re in favor of various forms of student debt forgiveness in response to a question from UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Robert E. Johnson.
“I was watching two people who agree on nearly every issue of significance to Democratic primary voters try to get a five- and 15- or 30-second clip to put in a Facebook ad,” said John Cluverius, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“The more complicated the differences between the two candidates become, the more complicated and difficult it is for voters to make up their minds,” he added. “With that factor combined with the fact that there are at least three or four big, national news stories that are long-term distracting voters from this race, it adds so many elements of uncertainty in a campaign that kind of started pretty uncertain already. So the only way these candidates can punch through is by going negative.”
Cluverius said that the debates, which may garner little attention amid multiple national crises, remain important because they provide “a setting that feels more comfortable to go on the attack.”
“I think the advantage in a normal election would go to Kennedy,” Cluverius said. “The problem is that this isn’t going to be a normal election. As long as there’s some measure of social distancing in place by the time we get to the primary — as long as the pandemic is still raging — there are forces at work in this election that neither candidate can control.”
—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.
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