Two candidates in the Massachusetts Senate race will take the stage Sunday night at Stonehill College to debate the issue of climate change.
Rep. Joe Kennedy III isn’t one of them.
The Massachusetts congressman announced a primary campaign for Sen. Ed Markey’s seat in September — and was promptly challenged to a climate change debate by the incumbent Democratic senator and Green New Deal co-author. Markey’s two other lower-profile challengers, Shannon Liss-Riordan and Steve Pemberton (who dropped out last month), immediately agreed, but Kennedy declined to commit to a November debate.
The Newton Democrat says he’s “happy” to participate in a single-issue climate change debate. The scheduling of the event, however, has since become a contentious subject in the early stages of the 2020 race.
Even the description of the “debate” itself — which will be moderated by MSNBC anchor (and Massachusetts native) Steve Kornacki on Stonehill’s campus in Easton — is a matter of mild disagreement. Stonehill spokesman Mike Shulansky confirmed Thursday that the college is calling it a “forum,” even as Markey continues to refer to it as a debate.
On Sept. 21, I challenged my opponents for U.S. Senate to the #MAClimateDebate, to happen first, fast and standalone.
This Sunday, @ShannonForMA and I will take the debate stage to discuss the greatest issue affecting our generation.
— Ed Markey (@EdMarkey) November 6, 2019
According to a description of the event emailed to the campaigns, the forum will have a number of traditional debate-like characteristics, seating the candidates together on stage and allowing them to respond to each other.
“Join us and hear what the candidates have to say,” the college tweeted Wednesday.
Whatever the event is called, Kennedy’s campaign confirmed Thursday that, as expected, he will not be there Sunday night. Markey campaign director John Walsh says they’re still preparing for a three-person debate — including the congressman.
“He’s sort of running a campaign about showing up, isn’t he?” Walsh told Boston.com in an interview, referring to an early theme of Kennedy’s primary challenge.
The Kennedy’s campaign’s explanation is that they don’t feel there has been much good-faith negotiating from the opposing side.
On Oct. 3, all four Senate campaigns met to discuss a debate schedule, after Markey, Liss-Riordan, and Pemberton had already agreed to a Nov. 18 debate hosted by the Environmental League of Massachusetts at Tufts University. Kennedy’s campaign took issue with that event for a number of reasons. For instance, the House of Representatives was scheduled to be in session on that day, the host group’s political arm had already endorsed Markey, and the Kennedy campaign wanted such a debate to held in a “frontline community” most impacted by the effects of climate change.
But perhaps above all, Kennedy’s team said the debate shouldn’t be held until 2020 — due to timing of the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and the winter holidays — to “ensure maximum voter impact.”
According to Walsh, the impetus for holding a November debate was both Markey’s disappointment in the Democratic National Committee for not holding a climate debate for the party’s presidential primary candidates and the urgency he witnessed while attending the September youth-led climate action rally in Boston, which occurred the day before Kennedy officially launched his campaign. Walsh said that the senator shot his video challenging his fellow candidates to a climate debate that night, just hours after the global protest.
“When it was over, [Markey] told me ‘I felt the urgency from these young leaders that I’ve been trying to push for 40 years,” Walsh said.
Markey, a 73-year-old Malden native, has worked to highlight his focus on the environment as he runs for re-election and, as a congressman, co-wrote the only major climate change bill to pass in the House (the legislation died in the Senate). That said, Kennedy has received equally high marks from environmental groups and even Walsh credited the 39-year-old congressman’s strong record on climate issues. Kennedy is also a sponsor of the Green New Deal.
“He’s not a coal lobbyist or anything,” Walsh quipped.
Still, the campaigns very much disagree on the climate debate (or forum) Sunday.
Shortly after Kennedy’s campaign voiced public opposition to the Tufts debate in an Oct. 4 statement, the Markey, Liss-Riordan, and Pemberton campaigns announced they had agreed to a Nov. 10 climate change debate instead — seemingly addressing two of the congressman’s objections. The event would not be held on a day the House was in session and it wouldn’t be hosted by the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
Kennedy’s campaign maintained that early 2020 would be the best time, as opposed to a November debate on a holiday weekend. And they’re miffed about not being included in the planning of the Stonehill event.
According to emails shared by the college, Stonehill officials sent invitations to all three campaigns shortly after 3 p.m. on Oct. 24. Walsh says the Markey campaign simply accepted the invitation, without any negotiations or further involvement. Four hours later, the senator announced his intentions to attend.
The last presidential debate didn’t ask one question about climate change. That won't happen in MA. Excited to accept @stonehill_info's invite to #MAClimateDebate on Nov. 10 and join @ShannonForMA. I hope @joekennedy will agree to participate. #mapoli #masen
— Ed Markey (@EdMarkey) October 24, 2019
The following day, Markey thanked Liss-Riordan for joining him and called on Kennedy to do the same, adding that he was “disappointed” that the congressman hadn’t yet done so.
I am disappointed that @joekennedyiii has not agreed to attend. I call on him to join us and debate the issue that affects us all in so many ways. There is no time to wait.
— Ed Markey (@EdMarkey) October 25, 2019
Kennedy’s campaign says they were caught off-guard by the announcement and disappointed in the lack of engagement from Stonehill. Prior to the Oct. 24 invitation, Shulansky says the college “floated the idea of a forum” to the campaigns in early October. Still, Kennedy’s campaign says they didn’t get any “meaningful input.”
“As we have repeatedly said, Joe is happy to debate climate,” Kennedy spokeswoman Emily Kaufman told Boston.com. “But he believes debates should be a collaborative effort between all campaigns, not organized by one candidate without meaningful input from the others.”
Kennedy’s team has called for a “robust” schedule of “issue-inclusive” Senate primary debates held across the state. The three campaigns are still working to negotiate the slate of future debates, but Markey’s campaign says the climate-focused event is long overdue.
The Democratic primary debate last month featured no questions on the issue, which virtually all of the candidates — both in the presidential and Massachusetts race — agree is an existential threat.
Walsh noted that the event Sunday will mark 50 days since Markey first issued his climate debate challenge — and even coincides with a New England Patriots bye week. He also made the point that climate change overlaps with a number of issues, from national security to jobs to public health.
“It’s not a very narrow debate,” Walsh said. “It is a moral crisis for our country.”