Sunrise Movement slams Nancy Pelosi for endorsing Joe Kennedy’s primary challenge against incumbent Ed Markey

The House speaker's move has stirred a firestorm of criticism from some Markey supporters — though not the senator himself — alleging a "double standard."

17names - House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III visited Simmons College for a roundtable discussion on engaging women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. The leaders were joined by Simmons faculty and students, as well as STEM education leaders from across Massachusetts. (Diane Hammer)
Rep. Joe Kennedy III and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at Simmons College for a roundtable discussion on engaging women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in 2015. –Diane Hammer, File

Rep. Nancy Pelosi has stood by Democratic campaign leaders’ efforts to protect incumbent members of Congress from primary challengers.

But on Thursday, the House speaker endorsed Rep. Joe Kennedy III’s bid to unseat Sen. Ed Markey — setting off a firestorm of criticism among the Massachusetts senator’s supporters and progressive activists who have complained about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s policy of blacklisting strategists and companies that support primary challengers.

“This endorsement is embarrassing because it plainly reveals a ridiculous double standard,” Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action group supporting Markey’s re-election, said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

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Prakash, a Massachusetts native, said that Pelosi “cries foul and works with the DCCC to make a blacklist” when progressive candidates challenge more moderate candidate.

“But with today’s announcement, Speaker Pelosi is saying that when she likes the challenger, or the challenger has a rich and wealthy family, helping challengers is okay,” Prakash said. “This has never been about protecting incumbents, it’s been about protecting big Democratic donors profiting off the status quo.”

While it’s hardly the first time the Sunrise Movement — which staged a 2018 sit-in in Pelosi’s office in support of the Green New Deal proposal Markey ultimately co-authored — has clashed with the longtime California congresswoman and Democratic leader, the group was swiftly joined by other prominent progressive groups and elected officials that support Markey, including Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom said the House speaker wasn’t playing by the rules set by party leadership.

“No one gets to complain about primary challenges again,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

“Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement of Joe Kennedy makes one thing clear: there’s one set of rules for progressives and another for the party establishment,” Justice Democrats, a group which has backed progressive challengers across the country, wrote in a tweet.

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While there is relatively little space between Kennedy and Markey on major issues, most national progressive groups have lined up behind the 74-year-old senator, primarily citing the Malden native’s focus on the issue of climate change and renewable energy.

Kennedy, the 39-year-old scion of one the country’s most famous political families, has argued that he would be able to more effectively leverage the platform of a Massachusetts senator and actively prioritize racial justice issues. The Newton congressman has also repeatedly cited the need to move past the “status quo” and reject “policies of the past” when asked why he is challenging Markey, who has been in Congress for 47 years.

Time For Change | Kennedy for Massachusetts

The most powerful nation on earth has left far too many behind. It's time for change.

Posted by Joe Kennedy III on Thursday, July 9, 2020

The endorsement from Pelosi, who has led House Democrats since 2003, somewhat complicates that “status quo” argument.

However, Kennedy’s supporters say that Markey has even more establishment support at both the state and national level. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, has fundraised for Markey, and other Democratic senators — ranging from Sen. Joe Manchin to Sen. Cory Booker — have rallied around his re-election campaign.

Kennedy’s campaign has also been subjected to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s rules protecting incumbents, as The Boston Globe reported back in March. Despite being one of the party’s strongest fundraisers, Kennedy was blocked by the DSCC from helping raise money for several Democratic candidates across the country running against incumbent Republican senators.

Kennedy’s campaign declined to comment on the Sunrise Movement’s criticism of Pelosi, but noted that the congressman did not take the same anti-challenger position as the DCCC or DSCC.

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“Joe has long said he thinks primaries are good for the party and good for our democracy,” Kennedy spokeswoman Emily Kaufman told Boston.com. “He is grateful to have the support of so many colleagues he admires in this race, from Speaker Pelosi to Progressive Caucus Chair Mark Pocan to the late John Lewis.”

In a statement, Pelsoi cited Kennedy’s effort to help flip the House from Republican to Democratic control in 2018, as well as his leadership organizing the party “around our core values.””We need leaders who are willing to give every inch of themselves to the causes and concerns that unify Democrats,” said Pelosi, who asked Kennedy to deliver the party’s State of the Union response in 2018.

Progressive activists argue that voters should back candidates who are pulling the party to the left to advance more transformational policies, even if it means intra-party conflict. And though Markey and Kennedy have more-or-less both shifted left in recent years to the prevailing progressive position on major issues, it’s been the elder senator that has captured the majority support of the ideological left and younger voters.

“This is using your power to undermine next generation Democratic voters and the progressive champions we choose to believe in,” Alexandria Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, which has endorsed Markey, tweeted after Pelosi’s endorsement Thursday.

But unlike his surrogates, Markey has no criticism of Pelosi’s decision.

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a tremendous, effective leader who has shattered glass ceilings throughout her career,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “I had the privilege to work alongside Nancy in the House of Representatives for decades. Any candidate would be proud to have her endorsement, and I congratulate Congressman Kennedy on securing her support.”

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