Markey’s remarkable reinvention

Senate contest upends conventional thinking 

NEARLY EVERYONE AGREES that when Joe Kennedy launched his primary challenge nearly a year ago to Sen. Ed Markey, the son of the state’s most storied political family looked like a good bet to oust the veteran Malden pol. 

A lot can change in a year, and it has. 

With the primary a week away, it seems clear that Markey has erased any advantage gap Kennedy enjoyed, with at least one recent poll showing him pulling away. Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a veteran Roxbury political strategist, and Stephanie Murray of Politico sized up where things stand on the Codcast’s final pre-primary look at the race

Ferriabough Bolling said she’s surprised Kennedy didn’t embrace earlier in the race his family name, which she said remains “legendary” to Massachusetts voters. “I know people have been saying, well, not for this generation,” she said. “I don’t believe that.” 

But Kennedy seems to have recognized all along that invoking the Kennedy brand could cut both ways. Murray pointed to an Atlantic article from April, when Kennedy acknowledged as much. 

With the two candidates closely aligned on nearly every major issue, the race has turned to jabs on other fronts. Kennedy tried to make hay over two fathers’ disappointment with Markey in cases where they went to him for help with dire family situations. The attack didn’t do much for Ferriabough Bolling. Meanwhile, Markey has been taking what have to be called gentle pokes at the Kennedy brand, including a new ad that turns JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” line on its head and says it’s time for the country to come through for those who have been left behind. 

A big reason why Kennedy looked to be in such a good position early on was that Massachusetts voters didn’t have deep attachment to Markey — or even knowledge of him. Though he’s been a Washington fixture for more than 40 years, the bulk of it was representing Malden and surrounding communities in the Fifth Congressional District. Markey has only been a statewide elected official since 2013, when he won a special election for the Senate. 

Last fall, Murray said, 70 percent of voters under 30 had never heard of him, according to a MassINC Polling Group survey. In the months since, Markey’s campaign has fashioned him into something of a retro cult figure among young voters, propelled by his partnership with 30-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the Green New Deal. Murray pointed to a UMass Amherst poll this summer that had Markey with 71 percent support among the same under-30 demographic where he was largely unknown 10 months ago. 

“Ed Markey has been in a unique position to kind of reframe himself as the way that voters see him right now,” said Murray. “He took his greatest weakness and turned it into one of his biggest strengths,” she said of Markey’s ability to essentially introduce himself to voters at age 74 after 44 years in Congress. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Murray said Markey’s remarkable transformation into septuagenarian sensation of the younger crowd became clear to her when her editor, who is based in Washington, DC, said his kids have been asking at the dinner table, “Who is Ed Markey, dad? I see him on TikTok all the time.”