In pandemic, Kennedy, Markey push messages online

  • Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, D-Mass., left, talks with Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., during a dedication ceremony on Feb. 20, 2017, for the John F. Kennedy Centennial Stamp at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.  AP FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/14/2020 6:22:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — During what would normally be a season of house parties, in-person roundtable discussions and meeting voters face to face, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the Democratic primary contenders in the state’s U.S. Senate race to get creative in connecting with voters.

With the election set for Sept. 1, U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III is challenging incumbent Sen. Edward Markey for their party’s nomination, and both have shifted strategies that anchor on their social media presences due to COVID-19.

Kennedy had temporarily suspended campaign activities in mid-March to refocus his social media channels on primarily educating about COVID-19 through livestreams, and Markey similarly holds informational discussions about the novel coronavirus and its impacts through his social media sites. Kennedy’s Facebook appearances consistently draw tens to hundreds of thousands of viewers compared to the few thousand Markey garners on average.

As both use their platforms to discuss COVID-19, the two candidates are also trying to communicate their larger, longer-term policy initiatives. In separate phone interviews, Kennedy and Markey each highlighted how they’ve had to quickly adapt their campaigns in response to the current crisis.

Kennedy said his campaign “reconfigured” campaign infrastructure during its suspension to shift to communicating information to the public about the virus, including what is being done locally and in Washington, as well as livestream discussions with front-line workers and more personal check-ins from Kennedy and his family. He’s also used his email list to raise nearly $40,000 for national and local charity groups, as well as over $15,000 for personal protective equipment for front-line workers across the country.

“I don’t think anyone can honestly tell you how this is going to work from a political standpoint,” Kennedy said. “But there’s times when politics isn’t as important as trying to make sure people’s health and safety and daily livelihoods are accounted for, and that’s the moment we’re in.”

Kennedy said he’s leveraged his platforms and these connections with his audience to talk about “the larger failures here in our system and to start to prescribe ... how we can make sure we are more prepared that this doesn’t happen again. Because it’s going to happen again,” he said.

“You’ve seen us talk about some of those structural failings … and to try to articulate, then, what needs to be done and how I think stronger leadership in the United States Senate is critical to ensuring that actually takes place,” Kennedy said.

Daily discussions

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Markey said, his campaign had built a “robust, grassroots organization” based on face-to-face organizing, but he noted that he also turned his campaign’s focus online. He said his staff is working remotely.

Markey said he’s held daily livestream discussions on Facebook with guests who are deeply involved with issues regarding the coronavirus, such as conversations with a labor union president representing grocery store employees and the president of a flight attendant’s association.

Some of the discussions have been lighter, such as a Saturday morning livestream session with former Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan in which the two talked about the greatest comebacks in Boston sports history. Markey has also launched a social media campaign called “#MakeTheMasks” which calls on President Donald Trump to use the Defense Production Act to mobilize manufacturing for personal protective equipment, or PPE, and other medical supplies.

Still, Markey explained that “we can’t lose sight of the long-term issues that this campaign is built on.” Just this past Friday, he held a discussion about gun violence and the opioid epidemic on Facebook with John Rosenthal, founder of the nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence.

“We’re talking about the issues that still are out there and have to be dealt with,” Markey said.

In a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll of likely voters released March 1, Kennedy led Markey 42 percent to 36 percent, which is within the poll’s margin of error.

Kennedy outraised Markey in the first quarter of 2020, collecting $1.95 million to the senator’s $1.2 million, according to Boston.com. Markey continued to ask supporters to contribute if they could while Kennedy did not, according to published news reports, though Kennedy’s campaign has indicated it will resume fundraising heading into the second quarter. Kennedy leads Markey in cash on hand after the first quarter, $6.2 million to $4.4 million, according to Boston.com.

Coronavirus relief

As lawmakers, Markey and Kennedy have been active in calling for greater relief from the federal government for citizens during the coronavirus crisis. This past Thursday, the two signed on to a letter urging House and Senate leaders to prioritize monthly cash payments to Americans in the next relief bill.

Markey said Congress should “put much more money” into the next relief package. For the unemployed in the legislation just passed, Markey explained that each person until the end of July will receive $600 a week on top of what they already receive in unemployment benefits, as well as the $1,200 per person direct cash assistance: “And that’s still not enough,” Markey said.

“I think that Mitch McConnell should just call us back so that we are able to put together a new package, an even bigger package, to give even more help to American families,” he said.

Markey said it is “imperative” that no health insurers deny coverage for COVID-19 treatment. He said some Republican governors are refusing to move their states into Affordable Care Act coverage which would protect those who are most vulnerable. Universal single-payer health care is a priority of Markey’s campaign, according to his website.

“We are seeing incredible income and race disparities in this crisis, and a lot of it has to do with access to health care,” Markey said.

Kennedy, in his role as a congressman, unveiled a “Worker’s Economic Recovery Plan” in March, which among other initiatives would give $4,000 to every American adult making less than $100,000 annually with a possibility for continuing relief, and boost federal Medicaid funds to states across the country, which he said would help hospitals that are cash-strapped.

Such an increase in the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage “makes it far more economical for our health care industry at large to see and to treat Medicaid patients, which I think is a critical step forward in ensuring that not just people have insurance but that people then have access to a health care system,” he said.

He’s also called for the immediate enrollment of the uninsured into Medicaid, supports Medicare for All and backs a moratorium on household and business debt payments, along with rental payments. Markey has also called for relief for renters.

“The idea that in the midst of a global pandemic that we as a nation are OK saying there’s tens of millions of people who don’t have insurance is nuts,” Kennedy said. “It is self-destructive, it is inhumane and it is just crazy.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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