What Markey needs to do

Analysts say the senator needs to focus on potholes and getting better known

It seems like yesterday—in fact it was in June—when longtime US Rep. Ed Markey of Malden won his race to succeed John Kerry in the Senate. Markey’s win only entitled him to fill out the remainder of Kerry’s term, which ends in January 2015. And so Massachusetts’ new junior senator has just a year in office in a gridlocked Washing­ton to reenergize tapped-out donors and to show voters he deserves a full six-year term.

Republicans are watching him closely, and many of them think the party has a better chance of taking the seat in 2014 than it did in 2013 when newcomer Gabriel Gomez lost to Markey by 10 percentage points. A victory would probably hinge on whether the party can recruit a marquee candidate such as former senator Scott Brown. Markey’s standing could also suffer if he stumbles politically or if voters grow even more frustrated with Wash­ington.

Markey says his top priority is to end sequestration, the across-the-board budget cuts Con­gress enacted in 2011 that began taking effect this year and are slated to cut deeper into federal agency budgets in January. “Sequestration is cutting at the heart of our business plan in Massachusetts,” he says. “The cuts in research at hospitals, universities, and our high-tech and defense labs are eliminating jobs and strangling growth.”

But Markey is not the type of Democrat anyone expects to break the stalemate in Washington. Since the late 1980s, he’s sided with his party on more than 95 percent of House votes that split a majority of Democrats from a majority of Rep­ubli­cans. Like most other Democrats in Wash­ington, Markey would like to reduce the pain of federal agencies by raising taxes on the wealthy, an approach Republicans reject. Markey says he’s “tired of gridlock” but won’t compromise his principles.

The impasse between the Republicans who control the House and the Democrats who run the Senate will also prevent Markey from pushing any of the liberal ideas that marked his more than 36 years in the House, such as legislation to forestall climate change. So he’ll need to focus his attention on things he can do, like fending off accusations that he doesn’t know his state well, and lobbying federal agencies to direct funding to Massa­chu­setts.

Brad Bannon, a pollster for Democrats and liberal groups, says that if Markey is to win reelection next year, he’s going to have to reinvent himself, if not as a forger of compromise then as a specialist in constituent service. “Ed Markey has always focused on and been identified with high-profile national issues,” Bannon says.  “As a senator, Markey will have to change his style and become Senator Pothole,” someone willing to pressure government agencies on behalf of angry constituents over the smallest of issues.

Markey says he’s ready to seek federal funding where he can. Infrastructure spending, traditionally supported by both parties, could be the ticket. And Markey believes the issue can be framed to appeal to his environmental supporters as well. “I want to put union steelworkers and ironworkers and welders and electricians to work building the new backbone for a new energy economy,” he says.

Before Brown decided not to run in the special election this year, he joked that Markey didn’t even live in Massachusetts, needling Markey for having claimed his parents’ home as his Massa­chu­setts address, a house Markey now owns. He also criticized Markey for maintaining a higher profile among Democratic Party activists in Washington, where he’s a hero for his work to combat global warming, than among his own constituents.

Markey will need to inoculate himself from such assaults. “One of the rubs against Markey had always been that he wasn’t well known in Massachusetts outside his district,” says Tony Cignoli, a Democratic consultant in Springfield. “In my neck of the woods, Worcester and out west, he could really put some work in. Showing up out here would be a big deal.”

Markey is taking that advice. Before Congress reconvened in September, he toured Western Massachusetts and met with local mayors and business leaders. He also visited two sites that have received federal funding in the past, a former industrial area in Chicopee that the government is helping to redevelop, and the John Olver Transit Center in Greenfield, headquarters for the regional bus system. It’s an example of the kind of new energy project Markey likes, since it’s powered by renewable energy sources.

In the Senate, Markey has assumed Kerry’s old committee assignments, Small Business and Entre­pren­eur­ship; Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Foreign Relations. On the Foreign Relations Committee, he chairs the International Development subcommittee. Markey says he plans to continue to focus on environmental issues, pursue tougher gun control rules, protect abortion rights, and seek to upgrade transportation infrastructure.

But nothing is likely to happen in Congress on Markey’s priority issues before the next election. House Republi­cans deny the science undergirding global warming and say the regulation of power plants pursued by the Obama administration is hurting the economy. Congress earlier this year rejected new gun control measures proposed after the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn­ecticut, and it’s almost certain the issue will not be revisited. The important fights on abortion rights are occurring in the states and the fate of state bills will be resolved in court, not Congress. Last year, Congress enacted a new transportation funding law that sets the federal government’s fiscal obligation to the states through 2014. The issue won’t come up again until 2015.

Winning over Bay State voters who aren’t affiliated with either party is increasingly the key to statewide election. Brown took a majority of these unaffiliated voters against Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special 2010 election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat. Markey won them handily in June against Gomez. “There are more independents than Democrats. He’s got to make sure he’s doing something for them,” says Cignoli.

There is another way for Markey to make a mark with them: By bringing home some federal funds. Whether Markey can win passage of a major bill “doesn’t matter to the average person struggling with an orthodontist bill or mortgage,” says Cignoli. “He needs to show he can use 30-plus years of friendships to bring money back to Massa­chu­setts, not just a grant for an arts center, but infrastructure projects in the towns and cities that are in need of it.”

But even that is harder than it once was, since Con­gress placed a moratorium on earmarks, the line items in appropriations bills with which lawmakers used to fund hometown projects.

Politically, Markey is aligning himself with Elizabeth Warren, who won back Kennedy’s seat from Brown in 2012 and is riding a wave of popularity for her populist attacks on big banks. The two are making regular joint appearances. Warren’s campaign organization is top notch and she helped Markey during his run for Kerry’s seat. Markey also wants Massachusetts voters to believe that he and Warren can be as effective a team as their predecessors. “Ted Kennedy and John Kerry partnered with each other for a generation and the people of Massachusetts benefitted from their leadership,” he says. According to Markey, he and Warren will continue that “tradition of national leadership.”

Markey also needs to avoid any big gaffes or ethical missteps. A scandal or even a poorly worded statement could make a Republican candidate competitive. It didn’t help Markey’s cause earlier this year when the Boston Globe reported that Markey had made a call to University of Massachusetts President Robert Caret in order to help a former aide win a lobbying contract.

Generally, Democratic incumbents in Congress do well in Massachusetts. Not one has lost a congressional race since 1992, when Republican Peter Torkildsen defeated Democrat Nicholas Mavroules and Peter Blute beat Joseph Early. Both Mavroules and Early were already wounded by corruption scandals.

Since then, even extremely popular Republicans have had little success. Consider William Weld, the GOP governor who stormed to reelection in 1994 with 71 percent of the vote, then lost two years later in his bid to unseat Kerry in the Senate. In that campaign, Kerry linked Weld with the unpopular Republican House speaker at the time, Newt Gingrich, and Kerry won reelection by a comfortable eight percentage points. Brown would be vulnerable to the same kind of attack.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
Already, a MassINC poll released in July shows that Brown has slipped in a hypothetical matchup with Markey. In three polls taken before Brown declined to run in the special election to fill Kerry’s seat this year (and before the Markey campaign got rolling), Brown led Markey in each and by as much as 22 points in MassINC’s January survey. Now Markey is up by five points over Brown.

“The biggest thing Ed Markey needs to do he’s already done,” says Democratic consultant Scott Ferson. “He’s been elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.”