Joe Kennedy III is asking Bay Staters to vote out one of the most progressive incumbents in the Senate. How far can nostalgia for a political dynasty take him?
By Brian Z. Zayatz
When I first walk into AmherstWorks, a cavernous co-working space in a building that used to be a TD Bank, on the morning of January 19th, I was struck by how little has changed since the last time I’d been to an early campaign event for a Massachusetts Democrat in 2014. When I decline to put my email and phone number on the sign-in sheet, I can see the outermost layer of volunteers and campaign staff lose interest in me, but an orange card is still thrust into my hand on which I could indicate my interest in volunteering should I change my mind over the course of the event. Someone from the second throng of volunteers, all a bit younger and dressed in suits with immaculate leather shoes, listed all the places I could take a seat (the front, the middle, the back, etc.). “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers was playing, followed by The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” which seemed an odd choice. The suits milled about, looked at their phones, and chatted with attendees who looked like students.
A representative for AmherstWorks later confirms to me over email that the event should not be taken as an endorsement; the campaign merely booked the space. The chairs arranged for the event are mostly high and swivelly, a combination that proves challenging for many of the attendees. I hold one in place for a woman in front of me, though many people choose to stand. People filter in over the first half hour of the event, and eventually nearly all the chairs are full, with perhaps 70 attendees total.
During this time I also mosey about to get a sense of what brought people out that day. A number of people, some of them wearing reflective vests, are here because their carpenters’ union has endorsed Kennedy and asked them to come out to the event, one saying that his being “a friend to the union” implied he’d be a friend to the working class as a whole. A woman who identified herself as Becky who sat near me wondered what he would do differently from Senator Ed Markey, the progressive incumbent who Kennedy is challenging, but held Civil Rights Movement veteran Rep. John Lewis’s endorsement of Kennedy in high regard.
High-profile endorsements have been hard to come by for Kennedy, who is running against someone who’s been in Congress since before he was born. Ed Markey, though not a senator who frequently makes the news, has a reputation as a climate hawk, and in 2019 introduced the Green New Deal to the Senate as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced it in the House (he also co-authored 2009’s climate bill in the House, which died in the Senate). This is the senator’s first bid for re-election since 2014, when he ran in a special election for the late Ted Kennedy’s (Joe Kennedy’s great-uncle) seat, and then again the same year in the general. Markey has the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and most of the Democratic establishment. Both Kennedy and Markey have endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren, the state’s other senator, for president, who has in turn endorsed Markey. Though Kennedy’s platform looks much like Markey’s record, Lewis is among few of Kennedy’s endorsements outside of labor that could be construed as ‘progressive’: other endorsements include Joe Crowley, the establishment Democrat that Ocasio-Cortez unseated in 2018 who is now a lobbyist for a firm representing oil and private prison companies, and Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona, a member of the centrist-leaning Blue Dog caucus.
The first person to speak at the event at nearly 11:30 AM is a particularly cherubic staffer who laid out the ground rules for the town hall (please have your question end in a question, etc.). He announced that Kennedy would be there soon. Having not been to one of these events since I finished high school on Cape Cod (where the volunteers were all retirees), it’s unclear to me if all the volunteers are so young because Amherst is a college town, or because the campaign is trying to subtly hammer home Kennedy’s own relative youthfulness, a distinction between himself and Markey that the campaign never mentions explicitly, but is certainly on the minds of some voters. At a Northampton event in November 2019, retired Judge W. Michael Ryan was quoted by the Gazette: “I think after what happened in 2016, we have to put the old warriors out to pasture. We need young people, stronger people, people with stamina, people with their eye on the future. I think Ed Markey has done a good job, but it’s time for my generation to turn it over to a new generation.”
In fact, nowhere in the pamphlet that is folded on each of our tall swivel chairs is there any mention of Markey, or even a vague allusion to a sub-par record in Congress, as one might expect from someone challenging an incumbent. But there are lots of pictures of the handsome red-haired 39-year-old smiling alongside groups of people that are far more racially diverse than the one in this room, accompanied by text about how much those smiling faces have suffered. The front page doesn’t even mention that Kennedy is running for Senate—it simply shows a picture of the congressman, a quote about Trump and a broken political system, and the campaign’s logo, which is comprised only of the words “Kennedy” and “Massachusetts,” as if they are synonyms. While Becky, myself, and as I’m soon to learn, a number of other attendees wonder how Kennedy will differentiate himself from Markey, it feels as if the campaign would rather we forget he exists, turn up the nostalgia for the halcyon days of a fading dynasty, and, when we see a picture of the 73-year-old senator with the awkward haircut, think to ourselves, “who was that again?”
Finally, with Kennedy visible on the sidelines, Kennedy staffer Mary Olberding rises with her young daughter to introduce the Congressman. Before anything, the daughter leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, to the first applause of the event. Olberding explains how, like herself, fighting tooth and nail for Democrats in Ohio as a child alongside her parents, her daughter was a Democrat before she was born, and we might go so far as to say that Kennedy was a Democrat before he was born, too. It is during this speech, not Kennedy’s stump speech, that we are given the closest thing to an argument as for why we should support Kennedy over Markey.
The first is that “we can’t afford another Scott Brown.” For the uninitiated, Scott Brown was a charismatic, handsome centrist Republican elected to the Senate in 2010 after John Kerry was named Secretary of State by President Obama. Brown won against Martha Coakley, a Democrat who ran a particularly flaccid campaign, and was ousted in 2012 by progressive Elizabeth Warren. The implicit argument—that Kennedy would fare better than Markey against a strong centrist Republican challenger in the general—rests on what we might call the Buttigieg Theory: that voters will vote for a young chummy candidate even if there is little substance behind it because said candidate is supposedly more ‘electable.’ Brown’s ouster after only two years in the Senate to someone who ran almost entirely on progressive substance and hardly at all on electability (and Buttigieg’s own floundering in recent polls) doesn’t bode well for the theory. What’s more, the only Republican in the race so far is Shiva Ayyadurai, who also ran in 2018 to single digit poll numbers in the primary. A scientist with a Trumpian victim complex and penchant for name-calling who voted for the first time in 2016 for his presidential analogue, Ayyadurai is hardly a Scott Brown.
The second argument is that we need someone who is a proven fundraiser, who will travel the country and support Democrats in more competitive races to help the party take back the Senate and hold onto the House. The premise, at least, is true: Kennedy outraised Markey by $1 million in the last quarter of 2019, and has a reputation of traveling far and wide to support Democrats in purple or even red states. By running this campaign, however, Kennedy has eroded much of the goodwill he had within the Senate, at least, by forcing the SDCC to pour money into a race that should have been an easy win for the incumbent. If Kennedy is so renowned for supporting fellow Democrats, he is apparently not keen on doing so for the Democrats of his own state. (Deputy Press Secretary for the campaign Brian Phillips, Jr., who introduced himself to me at the event, declined to comment on-record regarding this apparent contradiction.)
What is furthermore confusing is that, if Kennedy is apparently comfortable burning some bridges to win this nomination, he could have done much more to position himself as a progressive challenger, like endorse Bernie Sanders for president, or otherwise run on a platform bolder than the progressive litmus tests du jour, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, policies which he does support. Whether anyone would have bought that—or will continue to buy his current posturing—is another question: Kennedy is heavily invested, via inherited family trusts, in the fossil fuel industry, and in his most recent campaign for congress received seven times more donations from the pharmaceutical industry than the average for House Democrats (for context, Markey also received above average amounts from this industry, but was an original 2017 cosponsor of Medicare for All; Kennedy signed on in 2019 after pressure from DSA).
Once Olberding finishes her intro, Kennedy takes the floor to give his stump speech. In it we learn about his time in the Dominican Republic doing legal aid work. After one project he worked on, helping a group of Dominicans in the ecotourism industry organize in their workplace, was largely successful and another, an ambiguous project in a nearby Haitian community, was largely unsuccessful, Kennedy saw firsthand how law could be so powerful for one group, and so powerless to help another. We’re then given a tour of all the suffering Kennedy has witnessed in our own state (with significant overlap to the pamphlet): kids waiting days for doctors in the ER, etc. The all white audience nods along to the sympathetic break in Joe’s voice, now nearly a whisper. There is the obligatory invocation of Trump, who, he says, is only a symptom of wider structural forces. He closes to applause with a statement about how the country’s founding documents contained the loftiest of ideals, and though at the time those ideals were reserved only for rich straight white men, the project of the country has been to expand those ideals to everyone, a project which we are still undertaking today.
After hearing Kennedy’s stump speech, his choice not to assume the role of the progressive insurgent makes more sense. Kennedy is someone to whom nothing bad has apparently ever happened, who is generously offering us the role of ‘smiling diverse face’ in the photos that will one day be used to show his meteoric rise to loftier heights. Before the speech’s big finish, Kennedy managed to slip in for the observant listener a convenient encapsulation of his ideology: that “success can be an achievement,” but need not come at the expense of basic human dignity. Coming from someone whose success is largely the result of bloodline, the message for the rest of us is that we will be allowed to have healthcare as long as we promise not to use the S-word.
The Democratic Party of Kennedy is thus not lacking substance: rather, it is more like a multi-level marketing scheme. There’s a product that you probably don’t need or even want, like an essential oil applicator, but the campaign is successful when people join it, not when people buy the product. As pressure from grassroots activists (two words which are never mentioned at the event) mounts, the reformed capitalism that Kennedy and his ilk offer does not look terribly different from the “political revolution” offered by the Sanders wing of the party. The difference is that the term ‘revolution,’ oxymoronic as it is applied to an electoral campaign, implies that there is something fundamentally wrong that everyone must work together to fix. The other offer at hand is for us to make it out to the polls every once in a while where we can decide which of the Bushes, Clintons, or Kennedys we prefer to chip away at those obstacles to our enlightened founders’ ideals for the next couple years.
Markey is not a young upstart, nor an arm-flailing elder tossing around the word ‘socialism,’ but he has earned his reputation as a quiet progressive stalwart. As Maia Hibbett details for The Nation, the Senator has actively brought forward bills on net neutrality and ending fossil fuel subsidies, signed on as an original cosponsor to Medicare for All and co-authored the Green New Deal, and stood by activists fighting a deportation of a worker at MIT. Deb Pasternak, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, called Markey “the most important climate leader in the Senate.” Campaigning, however, is not his forte. At press time, his website still lacks an “Events” or “Issues” tab. It is unlikely he is not aware of the threat Kennedy poses to his seat, since the Congressman’s poll numbers surged well past Markey’s as soon as he entered the race. Only time will tell whether reliance on the goodwill Markey has built up among environmental and community groups during his tenure, seemingly his main strategy thus far, will be enough to win him reelection.
The Kennedy campaign is a gamble in its own right. While Martha Coakley fumbled two statewide elections to Republicans, Elizabeth Warren’s platform was just progressive enough to have an edge over a chummy Republican in a very blue-but-light-blue state. In September, we’ll find out if a similar platform, coupled with old school establishment Democrat savior politics, a pretty face, and a big name can unseat a progressive incumbent. If there’s anywhere to make this gamble, it’s Massachusetts. Largely insulated from the worst effects of Trumpism (and highly segregated, so a large portion of the electorate need never interact with those who are affected), it’s a place where the Democrats’ traditional promise just might still work, where the dream of a young Kennedy, with all the promise of his predecessors John, Robert, and Barack, ascending to the presidency keeps boomers up at night with glee. Markey, though allied with Representative Ocasio-Cortez on the Green New Deal, has for the most part stayed quiet in the culture war over the future of the Democratic Party; Kennedy’s contradictory bid to restore a dynasty in pursuit of a more just and meritocratic capitalism, on the other hand, firmly stakes out a corner of what has, on a national scale, been the losing side as of late.
As the Q&A progresses, mostly driven by climate activists, I’m unsure if the skeptics are being convinced or not. Applause of approval sounds just like applause of respect for the process.
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Photo courtesy of Facebook.