The results are in on the highly contested MA senate primary race between incumbent Senator Ed Markey and 4-term Congressman Joe Kennedy. While about 15% of the vote remains to be counted, it appears that Markey has won by about 10 points. That’s an amazing margin considering that he was trailing by double digits when Kennedy first announced his primary challenge and Markey was widely seen as the next Washington insider destined for the dustbin.
But as just about every activist in a wide range of causes pointed out when hearing of the primary challenge, Ed Markey is not your typical Washington insider. To the contrary, Markey has shown leadership on a host of vitally important issues for decades — and long before they were popular in democratic caucus. Markey’s campaign also bucked conventional wisdom by running aggressively on his record. Markey’s Senate win in 2014 was assured when he won the democratic primary, so it is unsurprising that many people in the state outside the activist community were unaware of just how much they owe to Ed Markey. Readers here most likely know him for his telecom work, but the impressive list includes fighting for the environment before it was cool, fighting for privacy before it was cool, and fighting for accessibility rights (which, sadly, is still not as cool as it should be). Markey’s commitment on the environment goes back well before the Green New Deal, and he was huge in writing the pro-environmental provisions in the 2005 Energy Act. He was a primary drafter of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1999. He is responsible for the closed captioning provisions and the video description provisions of the Communications Act.
And, of course, he was one of the earliest supporters of net neutrality, going up against members of his own party to fight the anti-net neutrality provisions of the 2006 effort to rewrite the Communications Act. You can see me gush about Markey back in 2006 here. But my appreciation for Markey goes back to the 1990s, when he was one of the few members of Congress who actually cared enough about getting the technical issues right to dig in deep on the creation of ICANN.
All of this paid off yesterday in Markey’s primary challenge. Markey’s early decision to back net neutrality — like his decisions on privacy and disability access — were made when no one thought any of these things would matter in an election one way or another. And I’m not going to claim that net neutrality was a deciding issue for the voters of Massachusetts. But it is part of an overall record that established Markey as a genuine progressive leader and effective fighter long before anyone considered those election advantages. In particular, net neutrality is a highly popular issue among the young online progressive activist community that press reports are saying were essential to Markey’s astonishing turn around from trailing by double digits to winning by double digits (or almost double digits depending on the final count).
What I mean when I say Markey’s bet on net neutrality paid off is that his courage to embrace what he believed was the right policy, and willingness to fight for it passionately in the face of lobbying pressure from some of the wealthiest companies in America, paid off. Green New Deal didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was only one in the latest set of important policy areas where Markey got out in front well before anyone imagined it would pay off politically (in fact, while difficult to remember now, the consensus in the press when Markey and AOC introduced the Green New Deal in 2018 was that it was “too progressive” and would actually hurt Democrats in 2020).
This kind of courage won Markey enormous support in the advocacy community broadly — another factor pundits tend to overlook. While many people in MA didn’t recognize Ed Markey’s name in 2019, anyone active in disability access or consumer protection or environmentalism absolutely did. Back in the spring, every activist I spoke with was backing Markey; not because they had anything against Kennedy, but because Markey had such a strong record of being there when it counted for people used to seeing their elected representatives shy away from fights with big corporations on issues they think few people know about or care about. My mother-in-law with multiple sclerosis (and a former resident of Malden before she moved to Burlington, MA) was absolutely furious about Kennedy challenging Markey after everything Markey has done on disability access. The kind of people who write letters and call their Congressmen on issues they care about are also the kinds of people who talk to their friends and neighbors to support their champions on the Hill when the time comes.
Like the policy issues Markey takes on, this kind of old fashioned roots in the community aren’t as flashy as things like Tik Tok videos, so reporters and pundits tend to underestimate them. But an army of determined seniors, environmentalists and other advocates working to get you elected is worth a dozen viral videos. And when you can bring the two together, like Markey did, it makes for a truly winning combination.
To conclude, I have a saying: “Being right is not enough, but it helps more than people think.” Ed Markey proved that in his primary win. Being on the right side of history by doing what he thought was right gave him a record to run on and a base to tap into that people massively underestimated. For all the talk of Markey’s supposed nastiness toward Kennedy (and the stuff people have complained about is so tame that it is hard to imagine this as being ‘nasty’ by conventional standards), Markey ran on policy and his policy record. I am already seeing some political consultants saying that Kennedy waited too long to “define Markey” in a negative way. That’s bull. Defining Markey as an out of touch Washington insider was the key to Kennedy’s campaign. Markey ran an insanely positive campaign and made the affirmative case that people should vote for him — and it worked. Those who cannot find it in themselves to believe that substance matters will stubbornly refuse to believe that. But I can hope that a new generation will continue to be inspired by Ed Markey and build careers based on doing what’s right, not what’s safe.
Stay tuned. . . .