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A Kennedy-Markey Primary? Massachusetts Is Jolted

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — Sitting on a plastic chair in a high school music room, far from the marble corridors of Washington he has prowled for nearly 43 years as a congressman and senator, Edward J. Markey was clearly not looking to pick a fight with the Kennedy family. At least not yet.

Mr. Markey praised John, Robert and Edward Kennedy as “inspirational figures.” He said he gets along with Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, the 38-year-old leader of the next generation of Massachusetts Kennedys. And he did his best to avoid antagonizing Mr. Kennedy, who is now considering a Senate primary against Mr. Markey — a possibility that has jolted this state and threatened to end Mr. Markey’s career.

But Mr. Markey, 73, whose Massachusetts accent vanquishes “r’s” at the end of words as well as any Kennedy, had an unmistakable message for those who think he could become the latest victim of Trump-era upheaval within the Democratic Party.

“Oh, I’m running,” he said in an interview on Wednesday before a town-hall meeting, hoping to dispel chatter that Mr. Kennedy could drive him into unsought retirement. “This is the most energized I’ve ever been in my entire career. Donald Trump is assaulting everything that Massachusetts stands for.”

While Mr. Markey had the president’s incendiary politics in mind, he was also hoping to signal to restless liberal voters that he grasps their outrage at the state of leadership and politics in the country today — a fury that has veteran lawmakers in this state and elsewhere feeling under siege with competitive Democratic primaries increasingly on the rise.

In some cases, the matchup would feature two liberal and relatively well-known figures, like Mr. Markey and Mr. Kennedy. In other cases, the intraparty challenges are coming from progressive Democrats, people of color or both as they run against incumbents, such as with the 2018 victories of Representatives Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

What’s new in both instances is that younger politicians are willing to challenge longtime leaders, normalizing primaries against incumbents and harnessing support from voters hungry for confrontation, unbound to convention and craving generational change.

While Massachusetts has been a progressive beacon dating to the abolitionist movement, the state has also long prized seniority and clout in its elected officials, treasuring politicians who were both nationally prominent and unapologetically devoted to delivering largess for public works programs like Boston’s Big Dig.

But the power of incumbency is now being tested here after a century-long record of sending three House speakers to Washington, as well as perhaps the most influential senator in history — Edward M. Kennedy — and a steady line of powerful committee leaders.

“It’s a different political world today,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston. “This idea of being elected and thinking it’s your seat until you leave, that game has changed.”

In addition to the prospect of a titanic clash between Mr. Markey and Mr. Kennedy, Representative Richard E. Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and all nine incumbent House Democrats in the state are facing primary challenges.

While the threats are of varying degrees of seriousness, no lawmaker is breathing easy a year after Ms. Pressley trounced Michael Capuano, the longtime Boston-area congressman who few thought was vulnerable to defeat.

“Ayanna really sent a signal to the political establishment that, at this moment, that the old wait-your-turn days are over,” said Setti Warren, the former mayor of Newton, Mass.

Yet at a moment when the Red Sox are fading from playoff contention and the Patriots are a few weeks away from the N.F.L.’s regular season, nothing is gripping Massachusetts like the possibility of another Kennedy running for the Senate. In a state where politics is both entertainment and blood sport, the newspapers are full of articles and columns handicapping the prospective race while Mr. Kennedy weighs his decision from vacation on Nantucket.

And some of the state’s politicians are already thinking ahead.

ImageCreditMandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Should Mr. Markey end up deciding not to seek re-election, 2020 could grow even more chaotic here. In an interview, Mr. Walsh suggested that he would consider entering the Senate race were the seat to become open.

“I’m not going to run against Ed Markey,” the mayor said.

Ms. Pressley is also seen as a potential Senate candidate, although Democrats close to her signal that she may wait to run for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s seat — whether in a special election should Ms. Warren be elected president or should she choose to retire in 2024.

Then there’s Maura Healey, the Harvard basketball star turned state attorney general, who is widely thought to be eying the governor’s corner office on Beacon Hill but who has also been encouraged to consider taking on Mr. Markey.

The tumult has anguished some longtime Massachusetts politicians, who recall that past primaries here were fought on momentous issues, as when Father Robert Drinan ousted a sitting House Democrat in 1970 over Vietnam.

“I am distressed by it,” said former Representative Barney Frank, calling the primaries “a luxury we should not be indulging in” when Democratic donors and activists could be helping in the presidential race and competitive Senate contests in nearby Maine and New Hampshire.

Mr. Frank, whose seat is now held by Mr. Kennedy, was characteristically blunt when asked about his successor taking on Mr. Markey, his longtime colleague in the House.

“I was shocked Joe would do that, I think it’s a mistake,” he said, speculating that Mr. Kennedy was considering a run now because he does not “want the seat to eventually go to anybody else.”

Many Democrats here say they find the plotting by the genial Mr. Kennedy to be out of character. Yet these assumptions also ignore the cutthroat side of the Kennedy family: the congressman’s grandfather, Robert, and his great-uncle, Edward, both challenged sitting Democratic presidents. (Mr. Kennedy declined an interview request.)

And not every Democratic leader here is unsettled by the outbreak of primaries.

“I may be in the minority, but I like the idea of competitive primaries,” said former Gov. Deval Patrick, who claimed the Democratic nomination for the state’s top job as a political outsider. “Every member of our delegation knows that nobody is entitled to these jobs. Competition for office is the way it’s supposed to work.”

Mr. Patrick, who, like many other Democratic officials here, has been lobbied for support by Mr. Markey, said he would stay out of a Kennedy-Markey race. But in an ominous sign for Mr. Markey, other Massachusetts Democrats who have announced their support for him sounded less committed when asked what they would do were Mr. Kennedy to run.

“I go way back with the two of them,” said Mr. Neal, calling them “both very good legislators.”

Mr. Walsh was even more equivocal about his preference. “I’m not going to speculate, let’s see what happens,” he said.

Of the primary battles for House seats, none may prove to be as competitive as the one between Mr. Neal, 70, and Alex Morse, the 30-year-old mayor of Holyoke.

“There’s an urgency to this moment that isn’t matched by the current representative in Congress,” said Mr. Morse, criticizing Mr. Neal for opposing the Green New Deal and Medicare for All and for taking P.A.C. money.

But Mr. Neal argued that most of his constituents were happy to be represented by the chair of perhaps the most influential House panel, and he reeled off the millions of dollars he had brought back home to Western Massachusetts while highlighting the legislation he has helped steer to passage this year.

And demonstrating that he would not be caught unprepared, Mr. Neal lashed back at Mr. Morse, noting that the Holyoke schools had been placed in state receivership on his watch.

“If he’s going to run against me on my record, I’m going to run against him on his,” Mr. Neal said.

ImageCreditCody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

What might help Mr. Neal avoid Mr. Capuano’s fate is the difference in their districts: While Mr. Capuano represented a majority-minority district that also included gentrifying precincts in cities like Cambridge, Mr. Neal’s district is anchored by working-class Springfield and is filled with old mill towns like Wilbraham and Monson.

It is the potential of a Kennedy race, though, that could resound the loudest.

“People really want to stop Trump and Trumpism in its tracks,” said Elaine Kamarck, a D.N.C. member from Massachusetts, describing a Kennedy bid as an effort at marrying the Trump moment with a call for generational change — a hybrid of moral clarity and raw ambition.

The young congressman, who would enter the race at the same age as his grandfather was when he ran for the Senate in 1964, is being encouraged to run by some in his family, according to Democrats familiar with the conversations.

And some prominent Massachusetts progressives are also nudging him forward.

“Joe would bring a type of leadership that we need in the Senate that I don’t see in Senator Markey,” said Val Frias, the executive director of Greater Boston Pflag, who has worked with him on L.G.B.T issues.

“He could harken back to an earlier time for the older generation and provide hope for the younger generation,” added Andrea Cabral, who served in Mr. Patrick’s cabinet.

Yet Mr. Markey, who introduced the Green New Deal resolution along with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and has made environmentalism a centerpiece of his career, is hardly without liberal allies.

He has the support of Ms. Warren, whose likeness he’s already using in digital advertising, and on Thursday in Boston he unveiled an endorsement from the Sunrise Movement, the group of young activists calling for climate action.

“He has more credibility to his name on an issue like climate than somebody like Joe Kennedy,” said Varshini Prakash, a co-founder of Sunrise.

In Framingham, where Mr. Markey received a standing ovation upon being introduced at his town hall this week, it was easy to find Democrats uneasy about a possible primary.

“I’m very concerned that someone feels that because they have a name and they’re a decent person they can challenge someone who is doing his best to save the planet,” complained Norma Shulman, a local party activist.

Mr. Markey made no mention of Mr. Kennedy during his remarks, staying focused on the urgency of global warming and doing his best to localize it.

“The cod need cold water,” he said of Massachusetts’s favorite fish.

But in the interview, he repeatedly returned to his modest roots, noting that his father grew up “in a triple-decker in Lawrence” and leaving little doubt how he’d target a to-the-manner-born rival in a class-conscious state.

As for his predicament, Mr. Markey smiled and said, “You know the old saying: You either run scared or you run unopposed.”

More on the Potential MatchupJoseph Kennedy III Said to Be Eying Edward Markey’s Massachusetts Senate SeatAug. 17, 2019


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