How Kennedy, Markey made their primary battle about the Kennedy family legacy after all

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The increasingly brutal primary between U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III is becoming a referendum on the Kennedy family legacy in Massachusetts — in part because both candidates made it that way. © Provided by Boston Herald BOSTON, MA – AUGUST 29-SATURDAY: Senate candidate Joe Kennedy […]

The increasingly brutal primary between U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III is becoming a referendum on the Kennedy family legacy in Massachusetts — in part because both candidates made it that way.



a group of people standing in front of a building: BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 29-SATURDAY: Senate candidate Joe Kennedy III, right, bumps fists with 6-year-old Robert Trudell, left, while campaigning in the Savin Hill neighborhood August 29, 2020, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald)


© Provided by Boston Herald
BOSTON, MA – AUGUST 29-SATURDAY: Senate candidate Joe Kennedy III, right, bumps fists with 6-year-old Robert Trudell, left, while campaigning in the Savin Hill neighborhood August 29, 2020, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald)

It’s a notable shift in the race over the past few weeks, spurred in large part by Markey’s moves to call out specific Kennedy family members by name and invoke portions of their legacy long considered sacrosanct.

The incumbent’s ploys have now given Kennedy — who had distanced himself from his forebearers throughout his congressional career — the opening to draw upon the famous names in his family tree as he finds himself playing catch-up to Markey down the home stretch.

“I’m obviously very proud of my family and the contribution they’ve made,” the grandson of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and grandnephew of both President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy said as he ducked the rain while campaigning in Dorchester Saturday morning.

“As much as we might want to characterize this, President Kennedy’s not on the ballot, my grandfather’s not on the ballot, my dad’s not,” Kennedy said. “This is about me.”

Kennedy said he only began discussing his family in response to Markey’s attacks that have morphed from jabs about his old-money challenger trying to “buy his way to victory” to accusations that Kennedy’s father and twin brother are “making sure that his super PAC has limitless sums to spend against us.”

Markey doubled down on the digs in an ad that flipped JFK’s famous line — “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” — on its head.

“With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you,” Markey said directly to the camera, his arms crossed, rock music blaring.

The ad, while lauded for its effectiveness, shocked many in its forthrightness. But Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s widow and key political adviser, simply scoffed at the wordplay.

“It’s not been about what somebody can do for us — ever,” she told the Herald. “If you can figure out what it means to ask what your country can do for you, let me know.”



a person holding a sign: BOSTON, MA : August 28, 2020: Vicki Kennedy stops by IBEW Local 103 to greet campaign workers for her grandnephew Joe Kennedy III in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)


© Provided by Boston Herald
BOSTON, MA : August 28, 2020: Vicki Kennedy stops by IBEW Local 103 to greet campaign workers for her grandnephew Joe Kennedy III in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Campaigning in Somerville while her grandnephew swung through Savin Hill, Vicki Kennedy said she believes the family legacy still holds sway in Massachusetts.

While “Joe went out of his way not to” draw on it early in the campaign, she’s glad he’s embracing it now by deploying family members and running ads reflecting on generations of Kennedy leadership in the Bay State and beyond.

“It’s a legacy of service,” she said. “And I think the people who know what this family has meant to this commonwealth understand.”

Having a prominent last name helps Kennedy as much as it hinders him: It’s allowed Markey to successfully play the underdog in a race in which the 74-year-old incumbent who’s spent decades in Washington feels like an outsider and the 39-year-old challenger who’s relatively new to the congressional scene has been painted as part of the establishment.

The Kennedy legacy still reverberates in some places. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited her ties to the family in endorsing Kennedy. Closer to home, campaign volunteer Nancy Copeland of Dorchester beamed as she recounted meeting Ted Kennedy back in the day while holding a sign for the family’s latest political scion at a Roxbury event earlier this month.

But the gravitas seems to lessen with each generation that grows more removed from the Kennedy heyday.

“The electorate is just not seeing that as the major reason to vote yes or no for Joe Kennedy III,” veteran Democratic strategist Tony Cignoli said.

Both candidates and their campaigns maintain that this is a race about records of service to Massachusetts. Markey’s found success in policy. Kennedy’s calls for new leadership have resonated, even as analysts say he’s struggled to offer a compelling rationale for why voters should choose him over the incumbent.

But as Kennedy — down in the polls and in need of a boost in the primary’s waning days — picks up his family mantle, the race refocuses, somewhat inevitably, back on that famous moniker.

“It helps,” Soana Pierrette said after chatting briefly with Kennedy in Savin Hill. “The Kennedys have always done so well with the public. It starts running in the family, especially seeing what your father has done, what your grandfather has done.”

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