A political newcomer aims for U.S. Senate
New Bedford native Steve Pemberton seeks support in bid to unseat Markey
Running a first-time campaign for statewide office can be grueling, with the heavy demands of fundraising and sewing up support in each of the commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns.
Last Thursday, New Bedford native Steve Pemberton’s campaign took him to Malden, the hometown of the incumbent he hopes to unseat, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey.
Speaking at the at the Malden Democratic City Committee meeting, Pemberton followed fellow candidate Shannon Liss-Riordan, who cited her background as a labor lawyer to underscore her commitment to improving the lives of working people.
In his speech, Pemberton, 52, recounted his upbringing in New Bedford, growing up in foster care after he was taken from his mother, who was struggling with addiction, and abandoned by his father, who soon thereafter was shot and killed.
“I was by myself, struggling to be seen and heard, just part of the unchosen and forgotten about, taken in by families who saw me as very much as a way to make money,” he said, before describing the teachers, mentors and kind strangers who helped him find his way to Boston College.
Pemberton, a business executive who now lives in Framingham with his wife and teenage children, then went on to describe how the dynamics that led to his difficult childhood remain in play today.
“It’s income inequality, it’s the lack of affordable housing, it’s opioid addiction, it’s gun violence,” he said. “Those are the things that are quite literally splintering families. It does not matter how well the economy is doing or how many buildings we see rising. Beneath the surface, we have many of our citizens who are struggling.”
As Pemberton highlighted policies he would push in Washington — ending the scourge of addiction, ending cycles of poverty and restoring families, the audience erupted in applause. Not the polite applause that comes at the end of a political speech such as those of the city council and school committee candidates who gathered at the meeting, but what seemed more an enthusiastic expression of agreement.
Pemberton’s challenge of Markey, who is completing his first term in the Senate, is an uphill battle. In addition to Liss-Riordan, Pemberton may have to face off against U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who is mulling a bid for the seat.
In Massachusetts, at least until last year, party insiders have traditionally looked down on those challenging Democratic incumbents. Pemberton said he respects Markey’s leadership, but says challenging incumbents is part of the democratic process.
“We live in a representative democracy, not in an electoral monarchy,” he said. “So me or you have the right to run for any office and should have the opportunity to do so.”
Pemberton said a convergence of factors led him to his decision to run, not least of which is the rising tide of divisive politics in Washington.
“Donald Trump and his party that aids and protects him has us on a perilous path with hate, anger and rage as a foundation of the culture and the purposeful attempt to exclude. There is no logical end to that other than a society that will collapse on itself,” he said. “Having said that, I still have faith in America’s ability to self-correct. We know when we’re off course. We know this is not who we should be.”
Going into his campaign, Pemberton already has some ideas about the issues he’d like to tackle in Washington, beginning with income inequality, which he sees as a linchpin undergirding a variety of societal problems.
”It’s no accident that at the same time you have record levels of income inequality, you have record levels of suicide, record levels of addiction, record levels of children in care — all of these kind of converging forces that Washington often deals with as singular causes rather than how they’re connected,” he said.
Other issues Pemberton would like to push forward include gun control and reform of the foster care system.
“I think it’s the closest thing to a humanitarian disaster we have,” he said of the latter. “Between 2007 and 2017, nearly five million children were removed from their living situations and placed in foster care.”
Pemberton launched his campaign two weeks ago. Last week’s event in Malden was his second Democratic town committee meeting. He said he’s looking forward to more over the next year of campaigning.
“There are 14 counties and 351 towns, and I intend to get to every single one of them,” he said. “That’s where you learn what people are wrestling with.”