Massachusetts Senate Primary Pits Ed Markey Against Joe Kennedy U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III is challenging Sen. Ed Markey in a contest that has many voters asking why they need to choose between the two lawmakers.
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Massachusetts Senate Primary Pits Long-Serving Progressive Against A Kennedy

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Massachusetts Senate Primary Pits Long-Serving Progressive Against A Kennedy

Massachusetts Senate Primary Pits Long-Serving Progressive Against A Kennedy

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Voters in Massachusetts are facing a decision that many of them wish they didn't have to make. For years, they've been represented in Washington by both Congressman Joe Kennedy, a member of the country's most famous political dynasty, and Sen. Ed Markey, a progressive stalwart who co-sponsored the Green New Deal. Now only one can win another term. Callum Borchers from member station WBUR reports that Kennedy and Markey square off in a Democratic primary tomorrow.

CALLUM BORCHERS, BYLINE: When Kennedy decided to challenge Markey for his Senate seat, some Democrats in Massachusetts wondered, why?

RAUL SILVA: That is exactly how I felt.

BORCHERS: Raul Silva is a 58-year-old civil engineer from Newton, the Boston suburb where Kennedy lives. He says he's met Kennedy a couple of times and likes him, but he likes Markey, too.

SILVA: You know, I think they're both very effective legislators, and it's unfortunate that we can't have both in D.C.

BORCHERS: In this deep blue state, the winner of tomorrow's Democratic primary is likely to take the general election in November. Whether that's Markey or Kennedy may not make much difference on policy because the candidates agree on most issues. Voters like Theresa Mattus are finding it hard to separate the two.

THERESA MATTUS: I'm, like, 51% Kennedy and 49% Markey.

BORCHERS: Recent polls give the edge to Markey, but it's been a close race for months. A twist is large-scale mail-in voting, new in Massachusetts this year because of the novel coronavirus. Kennedy knows that he or his opponent could make a compelling closing argument, and it may be too late because some voters submitted their ballots weeks ago.

JOE KENNEDY: It's a wild thing where I've got an Election Day that lasts a month, right? Like, every day, you're going to wake up, and somebody's going to be casting ballots.

BORCHERS: One way Kennedy has tried to make sure those ballots are for him is to criticize Markey's record on racial justice. Markey opposed court-ordered busing to desegregate Boston public schools in the 1970s and voted for the 1994 federal crime bill that many Democrats now acknowledge has contributed to mass incarceration of minorities. Kennedy also has the endorsement of the parents of a Black college student killed by police in 2010 who say Markey did little to help their family.

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DANROY HENRY SR: If you truly are a champion for change, if you're on the right side of social justice issues, act that way when the cameras aren't on you.

BORCHERS: That was Danroy Henry Sr. speaking on social media this month. Markey has apologized for disappointing the Henrys but insists his civil rights record is strong overall. And he's fired back at Kennedy, who, as an undergrad at Stanford in the early 2000s, joined Kappa Alpha, a national fraternity with deeply racist roots. Here's Markey in a recent debate.

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ED MARKEY: He's changed his position on the racist fraternity - that's his own words - that he was in for 20 years, and he only left that fraternity one month before this campaign.

BORCHERS: Kennedy says he was previously unaware of the group's history, but his former membership remains problematic, says Matthew Hughey, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut who has studied fraternities.

MATTHEW HUGHEY: For someone to join KA means to me you don't have a lot of Black friends because if you had a lot of Black friends, if you had a lot of friends of color, someone would say, hey, man, do you know about that organization?

BORCHERS: Some voters say the sniping between Markey and Kennedy, particularly on racial justice, has been frustrating to watch. Among them is Daunasia Yancey. She's the founder of Black Lives Matter Boston.

DAUNASIA YANCEY: Between these two wealthy white men, you know, the tit for tat is a moot point for me and I think for Black folks in general.

BORCHERS: Markey didn't grow up with the privilege of Kennedy, but race and class are two more ways the candidates are similar today. The contest could be decided in part by one of their few big differences - Kennedy is 39. Markey is 74.

For NPR News, I'm Callum Borchers in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIIV SONG, "UNDER THE SUN")

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