“Where are we going?” Ed Markey asks. The senator and I are speed-walking behind one of his staffers out of the Capitol and onto a vast stone plaza. It’s July in DC and it feels like a hundred degrees. Without responding to him, the staffer answers a phone call and keeps walking. She has a schedule to keep, shuttling Markey from hearings, to votes on the Senate floor, and now to…well, he isn’t quite sure.
“So why don’t you outline what is unfolding?” Markey suggests, trying again. He’s taking long, Gumby-like strides. The extra fabric in his loose-fitting suit billows as he moves. His hair is styled precisely the way it has been since the 1970s: long in the back and shaggy on the sides. GQ would not approve.
“Planned Parenthood rally,” the staffer says without breaking stride. “You know, Trumpcare is bad. The repeal effort is bad.”
“Right. No, I got it,” Markey says.
It’s the middle of a crucial week for Donald Trump’s administration, and the nation. Republicans have, once again, resurrected their attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. For Democrats, this means all hands on deck. Their votes don’t count for much, given that they’re in the minority and the chance for bipartisan action is precisely zero. But it is the perfect time to score political points and fire up the base.
I see Hillary Clinton’s former presidential running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, hustling toward us. He has just spoken at the rally himself.
“Timothy,” Markey bellows like a jolly frat star.
“All right, social justice warrior!” Kaine fires back, pointing at Markey with two index fingers.
“Jesuits gonna come out here,” Markey shouts in Kaine’s direction. He’s trying to muster a quip about their shared Catholic faith. “Out here. Over here….” The line fails to materialize. Kaine is gone. We keep walking.
In the first hours I spent with Markey, there was a lot of this: jovial, head-in-the-clouds bonhomie. He trailed off, loudly cleared his throat, and interrupted himself mid-sentence to greet friends passing by. He sometimes seemed not to know where he was going next. (In his defense, a typical senator’s day is a rat race planned on the fly and coordinated by a half-dozen smartphone-wielding aides.) The impression he gave was of a benevolent goof.
I had traveled to Washington to check in on the man who can only be regarded as Massachusetts’ other United States senator—the one who doesn’t have a national reputation and possible designs on the presidency. In a state with a long history of producing high-profile politicians, Markey has often been overshadowed and ignored—even after he left the House of Representatives in 2013 to fill John Kerry’s seat in the Senate. “Let’s be honest,” says Mike Capuano, who represents Massachusetts’ seventh congressional district. “Anyone who took that seat would have to live under the shadow of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and the governor and the mayor of Boston and Elizabeth Warren. Those are pretty big shining stars.”
Still, it’s remarkable how anonymous Markey is. Yes, the electorate knows his name—the guy’s been representing Massachusetts in Washington since the Gerald Ford administration—yet the average voter probably can’t tell you a single thing he’s done. When Markey does show up on the public’s radar, he tends to raise eyebrows.
For one thing, he has a weakness for kooky props. He has displayed—and read from—Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax on the Senate floor. Last year he lugged a cable box wrapped in chains into a hearing on TV regulations. He also has a weird habit of coining playful acronyms. He likes to say that Republicans mistakenly believe LGBT stands for Let’s Go Back in Time. He has identified a new mental condition, PTSD, or Post-Trump Stress Disorder. He claims the GOP, with its Medicare-cutting healthcare proposals, is out to Get Old People.
When it’s not an acronym, it’s a corny turn of phrase. “You don’t have to be Dick Tracy to figure out what’s going on,” he said to open a recent CNN monologue on potential Russia collusion in last year’s election. In political circles, these tics have become famous, and eye-roll-inducing. “I wish to God he would can it with the little aphorisms and the rhyming slogans,” says Jon Keller, the longtime Massachusetts political analyst with WBZ-TV and radio. “They were cute the first 150 times. Now they’re just annoying.”
Occasionally, Markey goes off the rails entirely. In May he joined the dishonor roll of left-wingers who have been duped by Russia conspiracy theorists. Speaking on CNN, he falsely claimed that a grand jury had been impaneled in New York as part of an investigation into alleged cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia. (Markey told me that a staffer had mistaken a “report” from a conspiracy-minded blog as real news and briefed him on it before his live interview.) His aides spent the rest of the afternoon on damage control.
When Barack Obama was president, and our government seemed more stable, voters could have been forgiven for not paying much attention to their junior senator. A Massachusetts Democrat could count on Markey as a reliable rubber stamp for left-leaning policies. (Republicans, on the other hand, will find little to cheer in Markey’s voting record.) But today—with a neophyte in the White House, our government lurching from one crisis to the next, and the Senate kicking into overdrive as a check on the executive branch—the political stakes are higher. So it seems fair now to ask: Is this guy really the best we can do?
As soon as Kaine is out of earshot, Markey pauses and explains his line that failed to launch. “Timothy and I are both Jesuit-trained,” he tells me. Irish-Catholic, Markey speaks frequently—and fondly—of his years studying at Malden Catholic High School and, later, at Boston College, at the time a humble commuter school. Growing up in a working-class family in Malden (his father was a milkman), Markey was indoctrinated early into the local institutions. “In Malden,” he’s said a thousand times, “you were born a Democrat and a Red Sox fan and baptized Catholic seven days later.”
Throughout his career, Markey has never quite disentangled his politics from his faith. “My basic text for everything I do is the Sermon on the Mount,” he tells me as we walk to the Planned Parenthood rally. “Blessed are the poor. That’s Medicaid,” he says. “Blessed are the elderly. That’s Medicare. Blessed are the children. That’s Head Start. Blessed are those in prison. That’s making sure we don’t imprison a whole generation of African Americans the way we did with the crack cocaine epidemic.” This is the gospel according to a purebred Massachusetts liberal who came of age when the Kennedys and Catholicism still shaped the state’s politics.
Markey entered the state legislature as a 26-year-old recent law school grad representing Malden. It was 1973, and the Watergate scandal was raging. Like other young politicians of his generation—some became known as the “Watergate Babies”—he dreamed of instilling virtue into politics by taking on entrenched interests. “It appealed to me how the legislature was a check on the president,” he practically winks.
From the start, the tall, good-looking kid with a hippie mop of hair showed a flair for politics to go with his youthful idealism. “He’s always been a challenger, a maverick,” says George Bachrach, who ran Markey’s first congressional campaign. Once on Beacon Hill, he took on the powerful Democratic leadership to close a much-abused loophole. At the time, lawyers and politicians could work part time as judges, which presented countless opportunities for patronage, corruption, and conflicts of interest. Markey assembled a coalition of reform-minded representatives and abolished the practice—in defiance of his party. “He’s always been engaged in uphill fights,” Bachrach says.
Markey was just getting going. In the summer of 1976, near the beginning of his second term as a state rep, he mobilized an army of teenage and twentysomething volunteers and defeated a dozen established Democrats in a race for Congress. That fall, at 30 years old, he traveled to Washington for the first time and was sworn in as a U.S. congressman.
He was still an outsider. But as a member of the powerful Massachusetts delegation, led by Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, he had an inside track to congressional power. Over the next three decades he earned a reputation as a prolific and effective dealmaker, passing one reform after another in healthcare, telecommunications, and energy policy. By the time Obama was elected president—bringing Democratic congressional majorities with him—Markey had reached the height of his political powers, and he took on his most ambitious legislative project yet: a climate change bill that would implement a cap-and-trade plan and cut the country’s carbon emissions. By all accounts, Markey was critical in getting the bill passed. “Eddie was the guy,” says Mike Doyle, a Democratic congressman representing Pittsburgh. “It’s not to downgrade Henry,” he says, referring to Henry Waxman, the bill’s co-author, “but Eddie was the one who connected with the members who needed to be connected with.”
Markey and Waxman ultimately assembled an unlikely coalition of progressives, moderate Democrats, environmentalists, utility companies, and a handful of Republicans to support the bill—and successfully pass it through the House. “It was incredibly ambitious,” says Eric Pooley, a former journalist who wrote a book about the bill, known as Waxman-Markey. “If you look at the previous attempts at climate change legislation, they failed miserably.” Later, he adds, “Markey and Waxman are the only legislators who have succeeded in writing major climate legislation that passed. That’s nothing to sneeze at.”
Once the bill moved to the Senate, though, it was beyond Markey’s control. Bogged down by Obamacare and the financial crisis, Senate Democrats could not muster enough votes and the bill died. Markey was crushed. He describes Waxman-Markey’s failure as the “top” disappointment of his career—and the collapse of one his longest-held objectives, passing sweeping climate change legislation.
There would not be another chance. In the landslide midterm elections of 2010, the Democrats lost dozens of seats. The short but heady era of Democratic majorities and dreams of progressive legislation was over.
Markey’s Senate office is set up as if he spends his days waiting for someone to arrive for an elaborate game of show-and-tell. As he speaks, he circles the room picking up props: a photo of his father in his milk-delivery uniform; the front page of a newspaper showing him at age 30, newly arrived in Washington; a copy of Dreamland—a book on the opioid epidemic—stuffed with dozens of pages of notes. “Did I show you this?” Markey asks, steering me toward a wall decorated with a 1989 vintage solar panel the size of a kitchen table. Below it is a row of line charts. Each one is pointing up, indicating progress in the renewable-energy industry—a cause Markey has spent decades working to advance from behind the scenes. “So you can see it’s going toward 200,000 megawatts in the United States,” he tells me. “One million megawatts globally.” He snaps his fingers repeatedly as if to mark the fast rhythm of change.
The main event of Markey’s tour is his conference room, where the walls are lined with framed copies of the laws he has written and helped to pass. There’s the Affordable Care Act mounted next to a photo of Markey smiling with Obama and congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. “I have in the bill a very important change of law” related to Alzheimer’s treatment, he tells me. Next to it is a 2007 energy law that helped increase automobile fuel efficiency standards. “That’s the revolution that’s leading to Tesla,” he says, snapping his fingers again. Next, he points to a framed document that overrode a George H. W. Bush veto. “I’m obviously very proud of that,” he says.
Watching him show off the framed laws, I’m reminded of a hunter boasting of the mounted heads in his trophy room. He betrays a kind of juvenile pride, but also nostalgia. Bagging this kind of big game—sweeping, reform-minded laws—is, at least for now, a thing of the past.
Today, Markey is playing a different game. With his party in the minority and Donald Trump in the White House, he’s forced to work at the margins, putting all his talents and knowledge to the test and affecting policy through old-school backroom politicking. The work requires some arcane skills, honed during his decades on Capitol Hill: knowing how to exploit the Senate’s byzantine parliamentary rules, for example, and capitalizing on long-standing relationships. “He’s an inside guy who’s learned how to work this ancient, at times suspect, seemingly decrepit process,” says WBZ’s Keller, who views Markey as a master in this arena. “It’s a classic evolution from bomb-throwing reformer to bomb-disarming insider.”
In other words, while Elizabeth Warren loudly and publicly attacks the Trump administration, an inside operator like Markey may be just the kind of junior senator his constituents need. “We’re using different tools,” Warren tells me. “Those can be nice complements.” Or as a prominent Boston business executive who has worked with both senators says, “He’s maybe not as dynamic a speaker as she is, but he definitely plays the inside game in Washington much more effectively.”
There are different ways to wield an insider’s influence. Lyndon Johnson, during his years in the Senate, physically loomed over his colleagues and threatened political retaliation if they didn’t get in line. Even Ted Kennedy could politically knock heads together when he had to. Markey’s tactics could hardly be more different.
In Washington, Markey is known for bouncing through the halls of the Senate greeting everyone—Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter—by bellowing their first name. At Christmas parties, he famously belts out carols. Ask the denizens of Capitol Hill to describe him, and many respond the same way: He’s a “happy guy”—not the usual description of a senator, especially in 2017. “Oh, everyone likes Ed,” Warren told me in her Oklahoma twang. Once, after a Democratic chief of staff escorted his senator into the chamber for a vote, the aide chased me into a stairwell just to say, unsolicited, “Markey is the best.”
Doing favors, winning friends, and convincing colleagues he has their best interests at heart comes naturally to Markey. “Sometimes [with politicians] that’s manufactured,” says Pooley, the journalist who wrote about Waxman-Markey. “But I think Markey genuinely likes people. He looks like he’s having fun. There’s a twinkle in his eye.” Perhaps most important, Markey’s popularity crosses the aisle, giving him a rare power: the ability to affect policy even when he’s in the minority. Joe Barton, an ultraconservative Texas congressman (“I was Tea Party before the Tea Party was cool”), at first found Markey’s showmanship—the turns of phrase, the props—grating. “I thought he was a pompous jerk, actually,” Barton tells me in his congressional office, a red Make America Great Again hat hanging on a coat rack right behind him. But ultimately Markey won him over. “I realized how smart he was,” Barton says, “and, from a liberal perspective, a lot of what he said made sense.”
The two struck up a productive friendship, which has paid dividends. Together—relying on the credibility that comes with bipartisan action—they’ve carried out a letter-writing campaign that has shamed big tech and telecom companies into releasing information about consumer privacy. Whenever he can, Markey greases the wheels of his Capitol Hill friendships with favors. The same afternoon I met with Barton, Markey had helped him out with a bit of legislation. A bill Barton had passed in the House was stuck in the Senate. “Senator Schumer”—the Senate’s Democratic leader—“didn’t want to move any bills at all,” a Barton staffer told me. Markey offered to help out. A few hours later, the bill went to the Senate floor and passed. Markey, the staffer said, “was one of the parties that made this happen and made it happen fast.”
Meanwhile, Markey is working with another unlikely ally in the Senate, James Inhofe, an archconservative from Oklahoma. Their politics are as different as can be. Markey considers climate change “the most pressing moral issue of our time.” Inhofe, for his part, once carried a snowball onto the Senate floor to show that global warming was bullshit. “We’ve been debating this issue for 25 years,” Markey says. “It’s reached a point where we have to just leave it there and look for areas where we can agree.”
Warren has taken a different approach, publicly calling out Inhofe’s climate change shenanigans. “I’ll go to dangerous,” she told the Globe in a 2014 interview, as she calibrated her attack. “I’ll go all the way.” Markey’s restraint, by contrast, has created opportunities. Against all odds, he is currently working with Inhofe on legislation related to pollution. Their bill would extend funding to clean up abandoned industrial sites—known as brownfields—so they can be put to economically productive use as condo developments or new factories.
This isn’t sexy stuff. Even if it passes, it’s hard to imagine it will attract much attention. But it could make a difference to some beleaguered western Massachusetts towns. Just as important, these kinds of small-bore projects bolster Markey’s connections to the ruling party. “Maintaining a bridge of communication,” he tells me, “is absolutely essential in the legislative process.”
The most damaging gaffes, political wise men say, are the ones that confirm what we already believe. Howard Dean screams and reveals his inner madman. Rick Perry says “Oops” and proves he’s a dolt. Marco Rubio short-circuits and the public says, See, he’s a soulless robot.
Markey’s worst blunder came during a debate with Gabriel Gomez, a Republican and former Navy SEAL who challenged Markey when they vied to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat in 2013. Overall, Markey won the debate—he came off as more polished and sincere—but there was one moment when he faltered. The moderator asked both candidates about Obamacare’s controversial tax on medical devices. The question was a gimme for Gomez: Like any self-respecting conservative, he was against it. But it was thornier for Markey. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any question better suited to tripping him up. It brought together Obamacare (which he loves), the source of funding for a social program (also good), and a tax that hurt an important Massachusetts industry (bad). He couldn’t find his way through the thicket.
“I’m working to repeal it. I don’t want to repeal it because you have to find an equivalent amount of money to repeal it,” he said, before concluding, “and so, for me, I want to repeal it.”
By the time he finished, Markey looked as confused as everyone else.
Luckily for him, Markey was running in blue Massachusetts, where sitting congressional Democrats have to go to extraordinary lengths to lose elections. Ultimately, Markey’s gaffe barely registered here at home. But outside the state’s bubble, conservative media reacted with glee. “Worst Debate Answer Ever?” blared the conservative blog Hot Air. National Review, in its more subdued tone, simply posted the video with some incredulous commentary—content to let Markey hang himself with his own words.
To his critics, if not to the average Massachusetts voter, this moment represented all that is wrong with Ed Markey. It proved he was a dullard and an unrepentant Big Government liberal. After all, he couldn’t even bring himself to condemn an unpopular tax that hurt the economy of his own state. (In another Markey moment, equally delicious to conservative media, a reporter asked him to name a tax he had opposed in his 30-plus-year career; he couldn’t come up with a single one.) “Ed’s never been afraid to let the government tell you what to do,” Barton, the Texas congressman, told me. Critics of Markey’s politics, like Barton, also charge that Markey is content to let regulators muck up the gears of the American economy, that he doesn’t place sufficient trust in free markets, and that there’s never a problem too small for government intervention.
When I asked Markey about this critique, he paused to consider the question, and then said, “To the extent that I listen to ordinary people and their individual problems that need some remediation, then I plead guilty.” He added, “In a way I’m a sucker for somebody coming into my office with a problem and asking me if I can do something about it.”
His answer struck me not so much as careful messaging, but as the articulation of a deeply felt political philosophy. Making it more convincing: He was essentially copping to his critics’ main charge—that he feels compelled to use the government to solve any problem that crosses his desk. Sitting in his DC office one evening, as the sun set, Markey told me, “When Donald Trump says to families in New Hampshire or Ohio, ‘I can’t believe how huge this opioid epidemic is and I’m going to do something about it,’ they believe him.” His voice trembled with emotion as he talked about Republican proposals to provide $45 billion to fight the opioid epidemic, roundly acknowledged as a mere drop in the bucket: “He made a promise to fight for them and they voted for him because of that promise.”
Despite his decades of cutting deals in the hallways and committee rooms of Congress, there is something of the Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope in Markey: the idealistic, optimistic do-gooder who is impervious to cynicism and believes that public service through government is a kind of higher calling. “Politics brings out the best and worst in people,” he said. “And, over time, it’s revealed who has the public interest in their soul.”
On the final night of the fight over repealing Obamacare, Markey was on the floor of the Senate chamber, along with his fellow Democrats. But they were powerless. The Republicans would either muster 50 votes or not and the Democrats could do nothing about it. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled with Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, their heads tilted toward each other, chatting gravely. John McCain, who had threatened to vote against the repeal, was surrounded by three colleagues and gesticulating emphatically. The Republicans knew it would be close. With Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska locked in as no votes, the party’s leadership couldn’t afford a single additional defection.
As that drama played out, Inhofe, of snowball fame, discreetly crossed the floor of the Senate chamber and approached Markey. From a distance, it might have looked like they were just engaged in small talk—and, in a sense, they were. Later Markey told me that Inhofe had a simple message: If the Republicans ever put together an infrastructure spending bill, as the president had promised, he and Markey should work together to pass it. To make that happen, Republicans—and Inhofe, who will lead the effort in the Senate—will need to muster 60 votes, which would mean securing a handful of Democrats. Markey told Inhofe he’d be happy to help. In fact, he already has a few Massachusetts infrastructure projects in mind that could use funding.
As long as Washington remains Republican-controlled and the legislature gridlocked, these incremental gains are the most any Democrat can realistically hope to achieve. And, unless Elizabeth Warren is our next president or vice president, Markey will likely finish his career in the same role he plays now: working in her shadow to advance progressive policy priorities. “His skill set is probably more relevant now than it’s ever been,” Keller says. Despite Markey’s low profile and his quirks, it is hard to imagine who could replace him and credibly claim to be an upgrade. Joe Kennedy III is better known and Seth Moulton has a bright future, but neither can match Markey’s relationships or his legislative bag of tricks. Massachusetts could elect a competent neophyte—say, a Harvard policy wonk—but subject-matter expertise does not a successful legislator make. That’s what aides are for. Besides, every congressional colleague and outside expert I spoke with praised Markey’s knowledge of policy. “By congressional standards,” says Stephen Young, a scientist who has worked with Markey on nuclear policy, “he’s a genius on the issues.”
A couple of hours after Markey’s chat with Inhofe, McCain approached the lectern and—in a moment that has already entered the annals of political history—gave the decisive thumbs-down to repealing Obamacare. Not long after, at around 2 in the morning, Markey was on CNN, as chipper as ever. “Millions of Americans…can sleep easier tonight knowing that their healthcare hasn’t been ripped away from them,” he said. But he couldn’t really claim credit. If he had accomplished anything that night, it was by taking one little step toward expanding his influence in a private chat with a natural political enemy out of the view of television cameras.
This humble role makes for an odd final chapter for such a long-serving legislator. But Markey seems content with the arrangement. He has given no indication of political ambitions beyond being Massachusetts’ junior senator. Which makes sense. He’s a 71-year-old with fairly low name recognition in a party that has a surplus of aging liberals. He told me, without wavering, that he intends to run for reelection in 2020. Presumably we’ll send him back to Washington for yet another term, and let him do what he does best.