Joe Kennedy revives an old charge — with a new twist — against Ed Markey during second Senate debate

"I got in this race, and I knew it was going to cause some ruffled feathers."

Springfield  MA   6/1/20   Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III elbow bumps Sen. Edward J. Markey after their debate at the Western Mass News station.  (photo by Matthew J  Lee/Globe Staff)  
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Rep. Joe Kennedy III elbow bumps Sen. Ed Markey after their debate at the Western Mass News station Monday night in Springfield. –Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe

During the second debate of their increasingly contentious primary race, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy III found themselves in broad agreement on the most pressing issues of the moment, from increased coronavirus relief to confronting institutional racism to Medicare-for-All.

The sharpest disagreement between the two Democrats came down to who could deliver.

And during the debate, Kennedy took the opportunity to levy his most high-profile attack on the incumbent senator’s record — of actually being in Massachusetts.

I think this moment requires stronger leadership and that means a stronger presence,” the Newton congressman said.

The charge dates back to Markey’s first run for Senate in 2013, when the then-congressman faced questions about the amount of time he and his wife spent at their home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., versus his modest childhood home in Malden. The Boston Globe reported at the time that Markey’s water bills and other records suggested he was at the Malden home infrequently, though neighbors and local leaders said he was an active advocate for the blue-collar community.

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In his bid to unseat the longtime legislator, Kennedy has recently begun suggesting that Markey is guilty of “absent leadership.” And during the pandemic, Markey’s campaign has increasingly highlighted his hometown on social media (at times with viral success).

Still, the charge took a new twist during the debate Monday night in Springfield, focusing less on Markey’s time in Massachusetts as whole and more on his time in the western half of state. WCVB moderator Janet Wu asserted that “we don’t see you around Springfield that often.”

“Well that’s just not true,” Markey shot back.

The senator quickly tallied off several pieces of legislation he had supported to benefit the region, from funding to improve a railroad crossing in Longmeadow to federal assistance for Easthampton firefighters to opioid relief bills informed by meetings in Springfield and Holyoke to a deal to restore in-state TV news in Berkshire County.

Not exactly legislation on the scale of the Green New Deal resolution for which Markey has become known, but real tangible change for constituents in Western Massachusetts, he argued.

“Not only do I hear people, but then I go to Washington and get the laws passed,” Markey emphasized, adding that he had been endorsed by seven mayors in Western Massachusetts.

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“The reason they have endorsed me is because I come to Western Massachusetts,” he said. “I take care of the problems of the people of Massachusetts. I stand up and deliver for them. I have done so since the beginning of my career, and I will continue to do so in the future.”

Kennedy, however, doubled down on the charge.

“I got in this race, and I knew it was going to cause some ruffled feathers,” he said. “I knew it was going to make folks uncomfortable.”

The congressman, who represents a district stretching from Brookline to the South Coast, said he recently spoke to an elected official in Western Massachusetts who said they had seen him in the region “more over the course of the past year than they had seen you.”

“I was here twice,” he said. “I don’t think the state can afford absent leadership in the moment that we are in.”

Markey said the accusation was “absolutely untrue.”

“And if it was true, all these mayors would not have endorsed me,” he said.

Wu suggested the dispute could be settled if Markey released his daily travel records since he was elected to the Senate, which he declined to do when running for the seat in 2013. Markey told Wu that he would get her the “information that you want.”

Shortly after Kennedy announced his primary campaign last September, a Markey campaign spokesperson told Western Mass Politics & Insight that the senator had visited the region five times in 2019, including trips to Holyoke, Lenox, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Northampton for a Green New Deal town hall.

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During a media availability over Zoom after the debate, Markey highlighted other recent efforts to benefit Western Massachusetts, including procuring more protective gear for Berkshire Hospital and a bill introduced last week to provide a funding mechanism for the East-West rail proposal to connect Boston with Springfield and Pittsfield.

“I have shown up and delivered for them,” he said.

Kennedy told reporters during his own media availability that Markey should still release his travel records and interpreted the senator’s answer during the debate as a commitment to do so.

“Yeah, I think he should,” Kennedy said.

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