This week, all eyes were on a pair of hard-fought Democratic primaries in Massachusetts. Sen. Ed Markey staved off a primary challenge from Joe Kennedy III, while the progressive mayor of Holyoke, Alex Morse, lost his bid to replace Rep. Richard Neal. Morse was dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at him by the Massachusetts College Democrats, which he was unable to shake off even after they were shown by The Intercept to be an unfounded smear campaign. Markey and Morse were both backed by the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement. Sunrise leaders Evan Weber and Alex O’Keefe join Ryan Grim to discuss the lessons of this week.
Ed Markey: The time to be timid is past. The age of incrementalism is over. Now is our moment to think big, to build big. This is what this election is all about.
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Ryan Grim, filling in once again for Mehdi Hasan who — this time, we promise — will definitely be back soon, and he’ll tell you what he’s been up to.
But before he does, we’re going to take a look at this week’s much-discussed Democratic primaries in Massachusetts, starting with Ed Markey’s victory in the party’s Senate primary.
Evan Weber: He really had our back in a really big way over the course of the past year, you know, so when we heard that he was facing a tough reelection fight, we knew that we had to take a stand.
That’s one of my guests today, Evan Weber, Political Director of the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate action movement that threw its weight behind the Markey campaign and ultimately helped him to a surprisingly comfortable victory over his challenger, Joe Kennedy III. I’ll also speak to his colleague, Sunrise’s Creative Director Alex O’Keefe. We’ll discuss the Markey win, but also the primary loss of another Sunrise-backed candidate, Alex Morse, who tried to unseat Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal in Massachusetts’ 1st district.
Today on the show: What can we learn from the Massachusetts primaries?
A year ago, Joe Kennedy III looked like a real threat to Ed Markey, the incumbent in the 2020 Massachusetts senate election. No Kennedy had ever lost an election in Massachusetts. Kennedy was in his late 30s, compared to the 74-year-old Markey, and he had a big advantage in the polls, especially with Black, rural, and lower-income voters. And yet…
Newscaster: In the Massachusetts primary, Senator Ed Markey became the first person to ever defeat a member of the Kennedy family in that state.
Joe Kennedy III: I called Senator Markey to congratulate him and to pledge my support.
Newscaster: And when all the votes are found, this is gonna end up being something like a 10-point win for Ed Markey.
RG: So what went wrong? Kennedy, it turned out, was never able to give a convincing answer as to why he was running in the first place, given his platform’s apparent similarity to Markey’s. Oddly, that was the same unanswerable question that had bedeviled his great uncle’s presidential campaign in 1980.
Newscaster: Why do you want to be president?
Former Sen. Ted Kennedy: Well, I’m — were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country that it is — has more natural resources than any nation of the world.
RG: That rambling answer came before Ted Kennedy had even announced his run, and it was over before it had begun.
In 2020, his great nephew’s race turned at the end on the meaning of the Kennedy legacy, and, as we’ll talk about later during our interview, it was Sunrise and Markey that baited Kennedy into a trap.
In the closing days, his campaign released an ad in which Markey inverted JFK’s most famous adage, telling voters:
Ed Markey: With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.
RG: An offronted Kennedy went on the attack, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime friend of the Kennedy family, jumped in the race to defend the clan’s honor.
It backfired. The public was not here to stand up for dynasties — not even the Kennedys in Massachusetts.
But the biggest part of the story is the support Markey got from the Sunrise Movement and allied youth organizations. Sunrise is a climate action group, made famous when it and Justice Democrats, joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, occupied Pelosi’s office in 2018. Markey and Sunrise were able to harness an energy reminiscent of the Bernie Sanders campaign, mobilizing young voters and transforming Markey from an old, staid incumbent into a familiar, hip progressive grandpa fighting off a challenge from the establishment.
Even the Bernie Bro trope showed up in the race. In recent weeks, Kennedy resorted to accusations of cyberbullying by Markey supporters. Even that didn’t seem to move many voters; Markey beat him by 11 points.
But there was another story going on in Western Massachusetts, in the 1st congressional district. There, Sunrise, and Justice Democrats, and others endorsed Alex Morse, the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke, in his campaign to unseat congressman Richard Neal. That story played out very differently.
Polls showed Morse closing in on Neal just a few weeks before the election, but on August 7, as early voting was already underway, all hell broke loose.
Newscaster: The University of Massachusetts Democrats stating Morse had sexual relations with male students while he was teaching at UMass Amherst and he used his position for sexual gain.
RG: The allegations against Morse, who is gay, were vague, claiming that Morse had made students uncomfortable with sexual advances. But they didn’t contain any specific or verifiable claims, or even victims. They were enough, however, to persuade groups like Sunrise to back away from Morse’s campaign.
Newscaster: Morse, speaking to Western Mass News, saying he believes this is a political hit job and says the Neal campaign is to blame.
RG: Then starting on August 12, The Intercept published a series of exposés that turned the story on its head:
Newscaster: The online publication The Intercept reported yesterday that the allegations against Mayor Morse may have direct ties to congressman Richard Neal’s campaign.
RG: We actually never proved a direct link to Neal’s campaign, but we did reveal a scheme by College Democrats, going back a year, to entrap Morse in order to generate sexual misconduct charges that could be used against him in the hopes of currying favor with Neal. Even the state party’s leadership was involved.
Nationally, Morse was vindicated by what The New York Times called “a cascade of head-spinning revelations.” And those revelations were enough to get Sunrise and other groups back into the race behind Morse for the final stretch, but by then the damage was done.
Locally, that reference to The Intercept’s reporting was fleeting and anomalous, as new outlets continued to treat the story as if it was real, with Neal saying the non-existent student victims should be heard, and Morse denying he did anything wrong.
An ad from Neal’s super PAC tarring Morse with the accusations continued to run locally through Election Day, even after they had apologized for it and said that it had aired accidentally.
Ad Host: Now, Alex Morse admits to sexual relationships with college students, even while he was a university lecturer.
RG: Neal, after benefitting from well over $5 million in spending, survived the challenge, 59 to 41.
RG: To talk more about Markey’s win, Morse’s loss, and what’s next, I’m joined by Evan Weber and Alex O’Keefe, two leaders of the Sunrise Movement.
Evan, thanks for being here.
EW: Great to be here. Thanks for having us, Ryan.
Alex, thanks for being here.
AOK: Yeah, thank you for inviting me.
So, how did you all settle on both the Ed Markey race and the Alex Morse race? Which one came first?
EW: Yeah. So in both cases, [laughs] it was a pretty, pretty easy decision. Ed Markey came first. We endorsed Ed Markey back in August of 2019, a month before Joe Kennedy even entered the race.
You know, we had worked closely with Ed Markey throughout the prior year, right after Sunrise Movement famously sat in Pelosi’s office and was joined by AOC. And Markey quickly reached out to AOC and Sunrise Movement to figure out how he could work with us to build a movement for a Green New Deal. And —
RG: So it was that occupation that kind of got his attention?
EW: It was. Yeah. And, you know, AOC kind of took Congress by storm by joining our protest of Pelosi’s office and, you know, Ed Markey is a guy who had been working on climate change for several decades, you know, since the 80s, working on clean energy and climate change. And when he saw sort of the energy that AOC and our movement brought along to the issue, he knew that he needed to be a part of really standing alongside and channeling that, and helping to bring it along to the halls of Congress.
And so he came up with the idea to turn our sort of proposal for a committee into a bill, into the Green New Deal resolution, that could set forward this vision for transformation that we were talking about. We started working really closely together with him from there.
You know, so when we heard that he was facing a tough reelection fight, he had had our back in a really big way over the course of last year and we wanted to have his. He stuck his neck out for us and, you know, really went out on a limb with the Green New Deal. And then there were these rumors that Kennedy was getting in the race and we knew that we had to take a stand.
RG: And so, it’s one thing to kind of have somebody’s back, but you guys ended up doing even more than that. Alex, you know, when did you realize that the Sunrise Movement support, and the kind of millennial-left support of Markey was going to be kind of the entire rationale for his reelection? And how did that translate into how you shape the campaign message?
AOK: Well, I tend to like underdogs. And I remember when we worked on the Charles Booker campaign, and I was in the campaign office as we were awaiting the results. And I was talking to some people on the left and people gave Markey no shot — I mean, even some people within our movement just did not believe that Ed Markey could defeat Joe Kennedy.
And I really tend to like these underdogs and I tend to think: Okay, well then, if they really need our help, if they’re desperate, then they’re going to allow us to be very creative, and really have control.
AOK: Markey’s star really began to rise on a meme level when he posted this iconic photo of him wearing Air Revolution sneakers outside his home in Malden. And this just kind of created a new persona for him that is almost inexplicable, similar to Bernie Sanders as this progressive grandpa that has been around the block for so long and is tough as nails and is not really going to allow anyone to tell them where to stand, his iconic political ad says that as well.
And they were working on building what he was calling a Markey-verse, with a lot of Sunrise Movement volunteers online. Because Markey made a decision that he was not going to canvass door to door, we thought we need to have a whole new style of digital organizing. So there became many meme accounts and offshoot, spin-off accounts of Shrek for Ed Markey, doggos for Ed Markey — and all this stuff does not necessarily persuade voters by 20 percentage points and swing elections, but what they do is they give people hope that there’s other people out there that believe Ed Markey can win. And that’s really important for mobilizing our base to do phone calls, to donate money to Markey, and to eventually vote for him. So this larger Markey-verse grew out and created a character of Ed Markey that many people opted into, many people could see and recognize.
RG: What’s the reaction been from elected officials in the Democratic Party, you know, since last night? Are you sensing any change in their posture toward the Sunrise Movement? Because one of the arguments for getting behind Markey was this will show veteran politicians that if they come the right way, it doesn’t matter, necessarily, what they’ve done in the past — that, you know, the millennial organizations are going to have their back. Have you seen anybody kind of putting out feelers?
EW: You know, I would say it started even before last night, and in the last couple of weeks, it was clear that Markey was gaining a lot of momentum, he was racking up tons of endorsements from progressive leaders and organizations and icons, and poll after poll showing him with strong, single-digit, even double-digit leads, which is what he ended up securing the win with.
You know, right after, right after Pelosi’s endorsement, which just, you know, totally backfired, the Markey campaign raised $400,000, immediately after that endorsement in comparison to Kennedy’s campaign raising just $100,000 off of it. We saw more and more progressives endorsing Markey as a result of that, sort of upset at Pelosi’s hypocrisy around the primary rules. And we even saw some establishment folks like Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, you know, chairs of committees, people in democratic leadership, that work with and have to work with Pelosi regularly, throw their weight behind Markey, bucking Pelosi —
RG: Right and both of those survived primary challenges of their own in New York recently.
EW: They did. Carolyn Maloney, in particular, had a very unexpectedly close primary challenge and Jerry Nadler as well. And since AOC’s election, there’s been this sort of sea change in the way that New York politicians have been relating to the left, including [laughs] the leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer. He did have Markey’s back in this election, which is perhaps unsurprising. He’s an incumbent Democrat, but Schumer also reached out to Markey’s team, I am told, very early this morning to congratulate him, to see what he can do to work more closely together.
I also heard that Markey got a call from Joe Biden very, very early on last night to congratulate him.
RG: Right, Schumer is kind of the most interesting of those, and also could be the most consequential. You know, if Democrats take the Senate in 2021, he’ll be Senate Majority Leader. And he won’t be a kind of rank and file guy who, you know, can rack up a decent voting record, but say: I wish I could have done more. No, he’ll be in charge of the entire floor agenda; it’ll be significantly up to him the strength of the legislation that gets to a potential Joe Biden administration.
Do you have a sense that the call he made last night to Ed Markey has something to do with the fact that he’s up in 2022, and is wondering if some of this energy could get behind him if he goes the right direction? And is it possible? Or is Wall Street Chuck too far gone for people like the Sunrise Movement?
AOK: I think it’s possible. I’m optimistic in general. I mean, if you look at Ed Markey’s record, there’s a lot of blemishes on it, things that I never supported — the Iraq War he voted for, the Biden crime bill. He has a record that looks a lot like Joe Biden’s on paper, even though he’s led on progressive issues like climate his entire career.
But what we’re trying to show is that we will not just attack you if you don’t endorse the Green New Deal. But if you convert, if you join us, we’re not going to hold a grudge. We say at Sunrise: “No permanent friends and no permanent enemies.” So if you join us, not only are we going to like, not primary you, but we’re also going to support you in a way that only young people can.
The reason why people are afraid of the Green New Deal more than anything, because it’s all based on political economy, they’re afraid of attack ads about the Green New Deal. And so if you show them that we can produce better political ads than the other side can, like the Green New Deal-maker ad that we produced, we can reinvent your character and sell you to a whole new audience, then that’s going to make you a lot more willing to support the Green New Deal.
And I think Ed Markey’s transformation is best seen in that Road to a Green New Deal Tour that Evan was talking about. Before our first stop in Boston, Ed Markey had a line, “They’re giving these tax breaks to these oil companies, then they have the nerve to call what we’re doing socialism.” And at that time, the dirty word around the Green New Deal is that it was a socialist wish list, right? It was a Trojan horse for socialism.
And so he would go on to say, even though the crowd was cheering at the word socialism, he would go on to say: Well, no, that’s not what it is, though, folks!
AOK: And then by the end of the tour, having seen the transformation that we were sparking and the fervor we were sparking around the country, by the last DC stop with AOC and Bernie Sanders by his side, he said: “They call it socialism. Well, you know what I say? Give us some of that socialism!”
AOK: And Ed Markey, to his core, is a politician — a politician I respect — who will move with the movement, who will make very smart political calculations. That’s why we trust him as a dealmaker for the Green New Deal. And he saw that the momentum was with the young people, and he’s one of the few, few, few — if any other — incumbents that don’t just say, “I love these young climate kids. It inspires me!” But Ed Markey would bring a Black kid from the South, like me on the phone and ask for my advice and then follow it. He bet his career on the advice we gave to that last line in that dealmaker video, “It’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
You know, he bet his political career luring the Kennedys into a fight — a fight about the soul of neoliberalism — and what it ended up being was a disastrous miscalculation for Joe Kennedy, because it showed the ruling class was so offended that you would even ask them for more. But you have to have so much trust in the next generation, and that trust is weaved into the Green New Deal.
RG: Now the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation that hasn’t signed on to the Green New Deal was up for reelection too, Richie Neal.
Let’s talk a little bit about the bad news from last night. You guys got behind Alex Morse, the Holyoke mayor, supporter of the Green New Deal. Why do you think he fell as short as he did? The returns are still coming in it; looks like he’ll lose by about 18 points.
EW: Yeah. So obviously I think we’re gonna have to take our time to analyze what exactly led to the unfortunate loss there last night. You know, we backed Alex Morse early this spring, after many, many efforts to pressure and push, Richie Neal to close the gap [laughs] on Massachusetts delegation supporters of the Green New Deal and you know, he’s a guy who’s taking money from fossil fuel companies and utilities and he didn’t seem too interested.
So, here was this young guy, Alex Morse, who moved his city to 100 percent clean energy, reduced their emissions by a huge amount while mayor, and shut down the last remaining coal plant in Holyoke. You know, it was kind of a no-brainer there for us to get involved in this race.
Obviously, there was this sort of late-breaking scandal-non-scandal in the race that —
EW: — pulled groups like ours out of the race for a critical week near the end where we were trying to evaluate what was going on and your reporting helped us understand and see clearly that there were some pretty bad intentions and corruption at the heart of these allegations and scandals that I think did bring a lot of national attention to his race in a way that was helpful and allowed us to do one of the things that we do well, which is, you know, put national progressive firepower on a race like this. But it also created this opening for Richie Neal and his allies to continue to spread misinformation and homophobic smears behind the scenes, through mailers, and digital ads, and TV ads that his disgusting super PAC aired, which obviously did seem to have some impact in the race, because polls showed that there were a lot of people still undecided, that Richie Neal was under 50 percent, which is historically bad as an incumbent, there was a real opportunity to close that gap. But it seemed like when those undecided folks were making their decisions, they went with Richie Neal, for some reason.
And so I do think that that had an impact. And, unfortunately, the local media did not do a good job of picking up on the great reporting that you did as the rest of the national progressive movement, and did cover the scandal [laughs], and the original breaking thing, but did not do as good of a job of covering the corruption of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
The way that this smear unfolded, do you think it’ll change the way that kind of progressive organizations respond to the next attack that is leveled personally against an insurgent or progressive candidate?
EW: I think it absolutely will. You know, I’ll speak for the Sunrise Movement specifically: The way that those attacks played out was a big learning moment for us as a young organization. And we’ve been doing a lot of reflection, and are going to be doing more debriefing about how we can be better responsive to those kinds of attacks and smears going forward.
As our movement continues to grow power, like Alex talked about, more and more of those character attacks and smears are going to come our way. And we have to be ready to discern what’s real and what’s not, and, you know, have a default position of standing by our folks and doing our best to take claim seriously, but also make sure that we’re getting properly vetted evidence.
So what’s next for Sunrise Movement on the electoral front?
I know that at The Intercept we’re watching the New Hampshire Governor’s primary, Andru Volinsky, kind of insurgent candidate there.
We’re watching Jess Scarane, a candidate in Delaware who’s challenging Chris Coons.
But what are you guys looking at? And where do you think you’ll put your energy between now and November? Or are you just going all general election?
AOK: I mean, as far as I know, we are going all general election. We’ve done our part. We won in landslides across the country in a lot of these primaries. We reelected the Squad. We have someone, Mike Siegel, in Texas running to flip a Texas red seat for the Green New Deal, supported by labor unions, could really transform the entire political game in Texas, if that happens.
So we’re pivoting to the general election and using these really powerful champions that we’ve elected as our major protagonist in the story. Obviously, Joe Biden is not the protagonist that is going to mobilize young people to vote, and, unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have that much intent to mobilize our generation to vote. We believe it’s very important to defeat Donald Trump, and we want to use the Squad as really powerful motivators for our generation to see what comes after November.
We have to build that vision, the first hundred days of Joe Biden’s presidency, and build a vision of how we can shut down society and actually force him to take certain concessions from the left. We also have really powerful leaders like Ed Markey, who are now going to be on the inside negotiating with other senators who are now afraid of us, who also now want our support.
So we are going into 2021, if Joe Biden is President, with a real position of power to make the political agenda for the Democratic Party.
RG: Well, congratulations on your win last night, and good luck going forward.
Evan Weber is political director for Sunrise Movement. Alex O’Keefe is the creative director of the Sunrise Movement. Evan and Alex, thanks so much for joining us on Deconstructed.
EW: Thanks so much for having us, Ryan.
AOK: Yeah, Thanks for the invite. It’s good to win!
AOK: [Laughs.] That’s for sure.
That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Ryan Grim, DC bureau chief for The Intercept. I’m also the author of the recent book, “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to AOC, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.” Evan Weber actually makes a cameo in it.
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