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Larry Donnelly: Kennedy vs Markey could be the last throw of the dice for the Irish American dynasty

The Kennedy vs Markey battle is the distraction from Covid-19 we all need, says Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

AT THE RISK of being redundant, these are truly strange, frightening and unprecedented days. As the coronavirus spreads in Ireland and throughout the western world, we collectively greet each day with uncertainty and trepidation. Our heretofore daily routines of work, college, school et al feel like a distant memory. It remains anyone’s guess as to when they might resume.

The coherent political and medical messaging in Ireland contrasts rather drastically with what had been, until very recently, a lot of bluster from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the incessant, all over the shop ramblings of President Donald Trump. The latter’s handling of this crisis may yet prove his undoing in the one-on-one battle with Joe Biden looming in November.

It is, of course, absolutely trifling by comparison to this pandemic and the clear and present danger it poses to public health globally. But political junkies have been starved of their lifeblood since its onset. It goes without saying that this wholesale recalibration of the news agenda is entirely appropriate.

At the same time, though, one could not have imagined that we would have pretty much forgotten about government formation at home, the Democratic presidential primary in the United States or the contours and consequences of Brexit across the Irish Sea.

The dynasty lives

At this stage, I am guessing that most of us who love politics would appreciate a distraction. Well, 3,000 miles from here, in my home state of Massachusetts, there is a fascinating Democratic primary contest for a seat in the US Senate pitting the incumbent, Ed Markey, against a youthful rival, Joseph Kennedy III. Yes, he is one of those Kennedys.

Ed Markey is a fixture in Washington, DC. The son of a milkman from the working-class city of Malden just north of Boston, he was a state legislator who was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1976 after upsetting the Democratic leadership in the state house. In fact, he was forcibly thrown out of his office and his desk was moved out into a hallway.

Markey used this ill-treatment to maximum advantage in one of the best and simplest congressional campaign ads in the history of American politics. A camera showed the lone, sad-looking desk and zoomed in on Markey. With his arms folded and a deadly serious expression, he forcefully stated: “They may tell me where to sit, but nobody tells me where to stand.” He won. And the old-timers always told me that it was the ad that clinched it for him.

Source: Ed Markey/YouTube

Over four decades plus, the 73-year-old Ed Markey has earned a reputation as one of the most strident progressive voices in Congress, first in the House and then in the Senate. He worked with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the “Green New Deal” and has been endorsed by her and a host of others from his party’s left-wing. What’s more, he has been an invariably steadfast ally of the Kennedy family.

congressional-democrats-unveil-green-new-deal Source: Alex Edelman

It may have come as something of a surprise to Markey, then, when Joe Kennedy announced that he would try to take his Senate seat in the Democratic primary. Kennedy, who is just 39 and was elected to the House in 2012, was probably moved by the success of AOC in 2018 against longtime New York congressman and Irish American stalwart, Joe Crowley, as well as by the triumph of AOC’s now close friend on Capitol Hill, Ayanna Pressley, over the well-entrenched Mike Capuano, in a Boston area district.

History may hinder Kennedy

Kennedy obviously benefits from his very high profile and universal name recognition. Financing his run will not be an issue. He is a bright, energetic, attractive politician who formerly served in the Peace Corps and has a young family. On the other hand, there is a wholly different dynamic to his candidacy than to AOC’s or Pressley’s. Their victories stemmed in large part from being ambitious, young women of colour willing to take on quintessentially establishment white males.

It is very difficult for a white man born into privilege – even one who has demonstrated a genuine commitment to marginalised people and to social justice at every possible juncture – to ride the same wave. Indeed, in The Nation, a magazine beloved of the American left, a piece on the race is headlined “Joe Kennedy III is an insider, not an insurgent” and posits that “Kennedy’s campaign to oust a progressive senator is an establishment takeover.” It is strange, especially for Kennedy devotees on this side of the Atlantic, to hear such criticism emanating from ordinarily sympathetic quarters.

upi-20180119 Kennedy has been described as an insider, not an insurgent. Source: UPI/PA Images

While initial polls put the challenger far out in front, things have tightened considerably. A late February survey had Kennedy at 42% and Markey at 36% with a substantial segment of undecided voters. Liberal activists are torn. Markey has been an indefatigable champion of the causes they believe in so deeply. But Kennedy is, in many ways, a living symbol of their ideals.

It has been a mainly civil affair to date. In subtle, and not too subtle, digs at one another over the coming months, however, expect Markey to repeatedly invoke his humble upbringing and Kennedy to stress that he is of the next generation.

All to play for

Two competing trends – not to mention the unknowable fallout from the coronavirus – will help shape the outcome on the 1 of September. Each will emerge from the Democrats’ desperation, acute in Massachusetts, to deny Donald Trump a second term in the White House.

First is that the party’s grassroots will be omnipresent in the campaign. Many are supportive of Markey and a not insignificant number resent Kennedy’s candidacy. Markey’s chief strategist, John Walsh, is a master at organising and mobilising them. They could break strongly for someone who’s constantly been on their side.

Second is that more casual, Democrat-leaning voters whose enmity for the president will be their principal animating factor at the ballot box – young men and women and people of colour in particular – may gravitate toward someone who can inspire them and whose name they all know. The extent to which AOC and others are willing and able to act on Markey’s behalf in order to blunt this appeal could be crucial.

The result of this primary will be hugely significant, no matter who wins. If Joe Kennedy prevails, he will represent Massachusetts in the US Senate as his great uncle, John F Kennedy, once did. The speculation would commence immediately and in earnest then as to when he will seek the presidency, just as it did after JFK’s elevation from the House to the Senate in 1952.

If he loses, it may mark the finish of his career in elected office and the end of the storied Irish American political dynasty for the foreseeable future.

Stay safe. And stay tuned.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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