BOSTON — Is serving three decades in Congress a sign of positive experience, or is it too long?
Will a military and business background translate well to public service in a U.S. Senate seat, or will a political newcomer on Capitol Hill face too much of a learning curve?
Those are just a few of the questions voters around Cape Ann and across Massachusetts will have to weigh Tuesday when they go to the polls to choose a new U.S. senator in the state’s second special Senate election in a little over three years.
Waiting for their answers will be 36-year Democratic Congressman Ed Markey of Malden, and Republican Garbiel Gomez, a Cohasset businessman and former Navy SEAL who is battling Markey for the seat held by John Kerry before he took on the job of serving as Secretary of State.
On the campaign trail, Markey has tried to take Gomez’s chief criticism of him — that he’s an entrenched Washington insider — and turn it on its head.
Markey has argued that, while he may not be the freshest face in Massachusetts politics, he’s served long enough in the U.S. House to know the ins and outs of Washington and can use that to the state’s advantage.
When Gomez tried to portray Markey’s tenure in the House as ineffective during their first debate, he charged that Markey hadn’t authored any laws in the past two decades. Markey, 66, quickly ticked off bills he’d worked on that were signed into law, including legislation to help those with diseases such as Parkinson’s stay at home and another designed to find a path for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
“That’s now the law. That’s my bill,” Markey said, adding that he also “passed a bill that created an on-ramp to the wireless world for the deaf and the blind in our country. And why did I do that? I did it because of the Perkins School for the Blind.”
At a rally in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, Democrat Thomas Menino, the city’s longest-serving mayor, defended Markey’s long record, saying he’s helped the economic recovery.
“They criticize him for being in office so long,” Menino said, joking that “being in office a long time is a good thing.”
Markey also has enlisted his party’s heavy hitters, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton, with Obama traveling to Boston two weeks ago to give Markey a full-throated endorsement.
“Here in Massachusetts, you have a long history of sending smart, tough, hardworking leaders to the Senate,” Obama said. “Nobody is better suited to carry on that legacy than Ed Markey.”
Markey, who introduced Obama, had portrayed Gomez as beholden to his party.
“My opponent says he is a new kind of Republican, but he backs the oldest, stalest Republican ideas from the past,” Markey said.
Yet Gomez, 47 and a political unknown before entering the race and winning a low-key April 30 Republican primary, has sought to position himself as a socially moderate, fiscally conservative alternative to Markey, whom he holds up as a symbol for an entrenched and out-of-touch Washington political establishment.
Gomez, a Catholic, has explained that he is “pro-life” by faith but has no intention of changing current abortion laws. He hasn’t ruled out, voting for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee who opposes the landmark Roe. v. Wade decision, yet he has said he could also vote for one who would uphold it. He has also come out in support of stepped-up background checks on firearms sales.
The son of Colombian immigrants, Gomez was born in Los Angeles and was a toddler when his family moved to Washington state, where his father worked as a salesman for a company that sold hops. Gomez, who did not learn to speak English until kindergarten, enjoys conversing in Spanish with Latino residents on the campaign trail. He often weaves Spanish into speeches and briefly spoke Spanish in a recent debate with Markey in Springfield.
Gomez — whose only prior foray into politics was an unsuccessful run for selectman in 2003 — has reacted angrily to campaign ads run by his opponent. He’s called Markey “dirty” and once described him as “pond scum.”
Markey said the ads were only intended to highlight differences on issues and not attack Gomez personally. Gomez rejects any suggestion of being thin-skinned but concedes that the aggressive tone of the campaign might have caught him off-guard.
“I think the one thing that has surprised me and maybe shouldn’t have surprised me is the level of ... misleading and dishonest ads that are out there, mischaracterizations of my positions,” he said.