Wellesley residents had the opportunity to hear the first Democratic U.S. Senate primary debate between Joe Kennedy III and Ed Markey. Although these two candidates share some common ground, the debate in WGBH’s Brighton studio revealed important distinctions between them on issues from matters of war and peace to campaign finance.
During the debate, Kennedy’s commitment to democratic processes and his intellectual prowess shone through. He reminded viewers he has signed on to the People’s Pledge, a commitment to restrict outside, dark money in the primary race and has strongly advocated for ending the electoral college and the filibuster. Although these positions may strike one at first as peripheral, they are fundamental to American democracy and to the workings of a good government. This is why initiatives supported by Kennedy, which address campaign finance reform and key structural changes to the federal government (e.g., ending the filibuster and electoral college) have been widely hailed by good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters. Markey reiterated his refusal to sign the People’s Pledge, back-pedaling on his 2013-14 position, when he enthusiastically supported it. This self-benefiting shift would allow outside spending with no accountability on ads judged “by the media” to be “positive.” As Kennedy countered, this is an exception that swallows the rule.
In terms of foreign affairs, Kennedy criticized Markey for his vote supporting the 2002 Iraq Invasion in the absence of a definition of success, a sunset provision and understanding of the burdens to our military and nation more broadly. Kennedy also noted that many House Democrats at the time did not accept the bad information provided by the Bush White House, on which Markey blames his vote.
Kennedy pressed Markey on his 2013 Foreign Relations Committee vote on use of U.S. airstrikes in Syria, after it had unleashed chemical weapons against its own people. To the dismay of most of us, instead of making a decision about such force, Markey voted merely “present.” In the debate and elsewhere, his rationale fell short. With characteristic common sense, Kennedy pointed out that “the lesson of the Iraq War was, you do not go into another Middle Eastern country without knowing how you get out.” Kennedy also pointed out that the war in Afghanistan has been the longest armed conflict in American history. Further, as the release of Afghanistan papers in December has made clear, the American people have been lied to for two decades about the mission, cost, effectiveness and burden placed on our military personnel and their families.
The debate highlighted the proven leadership of Kennedy, now 39. He has passed key legislation during both the Obama and Trump Administrations on issues ranging from the environment, mental health care, suicide prevention and accessibility of hearing aids, to overhauling the manufacturing sector. The Voices for Environmental Justice Act that he just introduced in Congress, for example, will mean transparency and accountability for new projects in frontline communities. Kennedy is an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and addresses the practicalities of implementing it more clearly than most. He champions LBGTQ+ rights and is fighting for an end to the “gay panic” criminal defense. Kennedy is a powerful voice addressing the gun violence and opioid epidemics, as well as issues of economic justice, inequality and affordable housing, among others.
On a more personal note, Kennedy is a fellow Harvard Law School alum who married his law school study partner. In an environment in which he could be part of systemic problems, he fights to be part of the solutions. He remains as humble, attentive, even-keeled and civil as he was when he debated his republican opponent in the League of Women Voters’ Congressional candidates forum in Wellesley College’s Alumni Hall. During his terms as Congressman, Kennedy has conscientiously held office hours here in Wellesley and the other 33 towns and cities he represents. He has shown up whenever asked at schools, community centers, small businesses and countless places in between.
This primary race will test both candidates in many ways and both will be stronger for it. I have heard the comments that Kennedy should “wait his turn” to run for Senate. I find this absurd. In democracy, competition is healthy. When Kennedy ran for re-election 2018, he didn’t ask his primary challenger to wait. Instead, Kennedy rose to the occasion and won with 91% of the vote. In that race and this one, we are seeing Joe Kennedy’s leadership — courageous, forthright, even-keeled and anything but presumptuous. He is intellectually and politically savvy and consistently challenges the status quo. For me, last week’s debate showed again why Joe Kennedy III would best represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate.
Marlene O'Brien is a lawyer and writer. She and her husband, Duncan, are long-time residents of Wellesley.