Massachusetts U.S. Senator Ed Markey and his Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy debated for the first time in months Monday night. The political event came amidst a pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality and racism.
The original issues in the race – generational change and national leadership – immediately took a back seat as the candidates were asked to respond to the two crises.
Kennedy said you can’t separate the pandemic and racism.
"You hear a primal scream across our nation of people asking for justice not just because of this moment because we see it exacerbated by this virus," said Kennedy. "We have to combat both."
And Markey agreed that the crises are linked and equal.
"Both crises are unearthing this fundamental challenge to the soul of our country that we see these people and hear them and give them the protections which they deserve," Markey declared.
During the hour-long debate produced at the Springfield studios of Western Mass News, the two progressive Democrats found a lot of common ground. They agreed there should be Medicare-for-all, supported east-west passenger rail for Massachusetts, and endorsed reparations for slavery.
In one of the few sharp exchanges, the challenger questioned the incumbent’s presence in Massachusetts.
" I spoke to an elected official ( in western Massachusetts), who said they had seen me in western Massachusetts more over the course of the last year than they had seen you and I was here twice," Kennedy said to Markey.
"That is absolutely not true," Markey replied and pointed out that he had been endorsed by a number of mayors in western Massachusetts.
Markey has longed been dogged by accusations that he actually resides in a house in Maryland that he and his wife own, and not in the house where he grew up in Malden. He deflected when asked if he would release his travel records to prove how much time he has spent in Massachusetts since becoming a Senator in 2013.
Markey pointed to the work he did in Washington that resulted in a gate being installed at a dangerous railroad crossing in Longmeadow, securing funding so Easthampton could hire more firefighters, and holding community meetings in Holyoke and Springfield on the opioid crisis.
"So not only do I hear people, but then I go to Washington and get the laws passed in order to protect the families of Springfield, Holyoke and all of Massachusetts against the scourge of all of these problems that affect thier families," said Markey.
Kennedy said voters should not settle for the status quo.
"This moment requires stronger presence, better judgement, and clearer vision than Senator Markey has delivered," said Kennedy.
Both men agreed on the need for greater federal oversight of state-run long term care facilities for veterans such as the Holyoke Soldiers Home where at least 75 deaths have occurred from COVID-19
Pointing to Markey’s decades of experience in Washington, Kennedy said more could have been done to stop the pandemic or lessen its impact.
" The big thing is you don't let it get there to begin with," said Kennedy. " And there is much more that needs to be done."
Markey said he fought for provisions in the relief bills to help small business owners, gig economy workers, and others.
"I won on each one of those measures," said Markey. " That is the kind of leadership we need in the United States Senate. That is the kind of leadership I provided."
This debate was originally scheduled to have been held 74 days ago, but was postponed because of the coronavirus.
Kennedy and Markey stood at podiums spaced 12- feet apart. There was no live audience. Moderators for the debate were in separate studios or connected remotely.
The primary is on September 1st.