BOSTON — When Elizabeth Warren needed a glowing introduction to her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, her former law school student, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, was there to provide it. When she needed someone to introduce her to the teeming crowd when she launched her presidential campaign earlier this year, Kennedy once again was the choice.
Yet as Kennedy embarks on the biggest race of his career, a primary challenge to Sen. Ed Markey next year, Warren won’t be returning the favor. In a contest that will force the Massachusetts political class to choose sides, Warren has endorsed Markey.
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The awkwardness is hard to miss.
In standing by her Senate colleague, Warren is lining up with much of the state’s Democratic establishment. Markey, who has served in Congress since the 1970s, has the backing of the majority of the congressional delegation and the state Legislature. Few of them are anxious to see a respected incumbent taken down in a primary that largely hinges on generational themes.
In Warren’s case, she announced her endorsement of Markey months ago, before Kennedy’s plans became public.
“Elizabeth Warren made a commitment and she’s going to keep that commitment. And when you’re running for president, that’s a smart thing because you want people to believe you keep your word, and in this case she is,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a political analyst at Dewey Square Group in Boston. “In the end, Elizabeth Warren is not gonna get involved in the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts when she’s trying to win the biggest race of her life, which is [for] the White House.”
With speculation about the race building to a fever pitch, Warren once again was forced to address the issue last weekend.
“I endorsed Sen. Markey back in February. I couldn’t ask for a better partner in the Senate than Ed Markey. He is a good friend. Joe Kennedy is also a good friend. I have worked with him since he was a student of mine. Both he and his wife were my students. I have worked with him as a congressman. I have nothing but the highest respect for him and I have no criticism,” Warren said at the Massachusetts Democratic convention on Saturday.
The questions aren’t likely to go away, as long as there’s suspicion that her heart is with Kennedy in the race. While other prominent Massachusetts political figures, including former Rep. Barney Frank, have said Kennedy should avoid a challenge and save Democratic resources for defeating President Donald Trump, Warren has been more circumspect, saying only that she is not concerned by the prospect of a Senate primary.
“I’m not worried about any part of that,” Warren told reporters on Saturday. “You can ask this 400 different ways and you’re going to get the same answer. I’ve endorsed Sen. Markey, I am friends with Congressman Kennedy and with Sen. Markey. That’s what I have to say.”
At least one of the senior people advising her presidential campaign will also be working for Kennedy’s campaign: Tracey Lewis, the deputy campaign manager on Warren’s 2012 Senate race who was one of the first hires announced by her presidential exploratory committee. The Warren campaign paid Lewis’ firm, TL Strategies, $55,000 through the first two quarters of 2019.
Markey’s campaign declined to comment on a top Warren campaign hand working for Kennedy’s Senate run.
And while Kennedy has stumped for her in New Hampshire, Warren brushed off the suggestion that her former law student was putting her in a tough spot by campaigning for her when she can’t do the same for him. “No,” Warren told reporters at the state convention last weekend, flatly. She conceded that she had spoken with Kennedy, but declined to say what they talked about.
At the state party convention, where both Markey and Warren were keynote speakers, the two senators did not appear together — Attorney General Maura Healey brought Warren onstage. But Markey was careful to highlight his relationship with Warren. Before he addressed the party activists, he played an introduction video that featured clips of Warren and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsing him.
Markey pushed back on a suggestion that Kennedy has been a more vigorous campaigner for Warren’s presidential bid.
“I’ve already been up to New Hampshire for Sen. Warren. I’ve already campaigned for her in Michigan. So I’m a big supporter of Sen. Warren. I think she is gonna become the next president of the United States, and I’m honored to be her partner on the floor of the Senate,” Markey said. “I’m honored by the incredible things she continues to say about me and my partnership with her.”
Yet that partnership doesn’t date back as far as Warren’s relationship with the Kennedy scion, which predates his time in Congress. Kennedy took at least two of Warren’s classes at Harvard Law School, including advanced bankruptcy, when the financial crisis hit in 2008. He even met his wife in one of her classes.
As Warren went to Washington in the aftermath of the crash and pushed for a consumer finance watchdog as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform package, Kennedy assisted her efforts by lobbying then-Massachusetts Rep. Bill Delahunt — for whom Kennedy once served as an intern — on the proposal.
“Congressman Delahunt (with Joe Kennedy’s help) and Congressman [Brad] Miller were ready to go, eager to take on the fight for the agency in the House,” recalls Warren in her book “A Fighting Chance.”
Warren’s relationship with — and affection for — the Kennedy clan runs deep. Starting in the late ’90s, Warren and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was Joe Kennedy’s great-uncle, were early allies in what Warren often calls the “Bankruptcy Wars.”
Warren on occasion is sentimental about occupying the same Senate seat that both Ted and John F. Kennedy held.
“I sit at their desk and you know how I know that? They wrote their names in the drawer,” she told a town hall in the small town of Kermit, W.Va., last spring. “It’s true! Schoolteachers know, it’s like every bad 4th grader. And, I’ll tell you, when it gets really tough some days I sit on the floor of the Senate and I listen to some of this stuff and I open the drawer and just run my thumb across their names and I think, ‘You stay in the fight for what you believe in.’”
There’s been quiet speculation that Warren could flip her endorsement, but it’s not clear Kennedy needs the boost. Early polling shows Kennedy with an edge in the race. The 38-year-old congressman runs 14 points ahead of Markey in a head-to-head contest, and he’s up 9 points when tested against Markey and the other primary challengers, executive Steve Pemberton and attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, according to the Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll.
“The interesting question — and we’ll never know — is what would Elizabeth Warren have done if she didn’t endorse six or seven months ago and waited until now?” Marsh said. “What if she had waited until Joe Kennedy got into the race and had to choose between the two? She may very well have had the same answer.”