“We didn’t reinvent Ed Markey, we told the truth about his record.”
The Students for Markey campaign—a group of more than 600 middle school, high school, and college students—arguably raised the profile of a 74-year-old incumbent senator, helping him defeat challenger Congressman Joe Kennedy III, 35 years Markey’s junior, in September’s primary.
Dubbed members of the Markeyverse, the group’s co-founder and leader Calla Walsh, 16, of Cambridge, is already back at it, and is actively supporting Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu in her bid for mayor.
I caught up with Walsh, who also worked as the communications director for Jordan Meehan’s recent bid for state rep, to talk about her political activism and the young progressive movement.
Was the state representative race in Allston-Brighton between Jordan Meehan and incumbent Kevin Honan your entrance into politics?
The first campaign that I was really all involved with was the [US Sen. Elizabeth] Warren campaign, which I sort of met Jordan through … we sort of entered the same circle since he was a big Warren supporter too. But Jordan’s campaign was definitely the first state-level campaign, and it really opened up all of the issues that are going on in Massachusetts [and] in the State House that I had no idea about.
What are some of the issues with the current state of things in Blue Massachusetts?
There’s really no progressive legislation being passed … the last time a climate bill was passed was in 2008 … Now would be the perfect time to pass the Roe Act to solidify abortion rights in Massachusetts, especially now that the future of Roe v. Wade at the federal level is so uncertain.
Tell me more about your involvement in Meehan’s campaign.
I started out as a campaign fellow but I started sort of just playing a [larger] role in the team, and that was a really amazing experience for me … I think often on campaigns, young people are just the intern and we’re used like labor to make a ton of phone calls. But everyone on Jordan’s team really saw that I could play a valuable part in the campaign.
Meehan wasn’t able to defeat Honan. Any worry that progressive challengers, like Michelle Wu, will suffer a similar fate?
I think it’s definitely an uphill battle every time. The Beacon Hill establishment is very very powerful … after 34 years, [Honan] finally had his first primary challenger, and we did end up winning 46% of the vote … even if we didn’t win the race, I still feel like we beat a lot of odds.
It sounds like you’re in favor of defeating incumbents. Why did you decide to support Markey?
I just support whoever is the most progressive in the race … I definitely do tend to support the person who’s challenging the incumbent, but Ed, I think, is a special case just because he’s led on so many issues that matter to young people.
You attend the Winsor School—a Boston school—but don’t live in the city. You can’t vote until 2022, so why are you involved in the Wu race?
I’m part of the [Students for Wu] group, but I’m definitely not leading in it just because I think it should be centered around people in Boston, especially people in Boston Public Schools—I think that’s super important.
As someone who goes to school in Boston, I am impacted by some of those policies. But Michelle Wu is an amazing candidate, and we’ve already seen a lot of the Markey base mobilizing in support of her.
We’ve heard about the Markeyverse. What is that, and what does that have to do with the Wuniverse?
The Markeyverse is basically an online universe of [over 100] stan accounts or niche accounts in support of Ed Markey… basically they tweet out in support of Ed, but they also turn all of their interactions online into shifting people for phone banks, dropping donation links on other people’s posts, really utilizing the digital organizing sphere to get kids in by having these fun accounts … the Wuniverse was created very organically in that a lot of Markey accounts wanted to shift their efforts towards supporting another progressive candidate in Massachusetts.
What would you say to someone if they asked, What’s wrong with Joe Kennedy, or, What’s wrong with Marty Walsh?
I think a couple years ago I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question, but something that’s really happened to me probably in the past year is just realizing that being a Democrat does not automatically make you good … it’s way, way more complicated than that. And I think having a D next to your name does not mean anything if you’re not fighting for progressive policies that actually impact people’s lives.
All that Kennedy was running on was the last-name appeal. That was really not appealing to us; we don’t like romanticize political dynasties, that’s not something that was really an appeal to us at all. What was appealing was that Ed Markey was the co-author of the most transformative piece of climate legislation in modern history. … We care about passing a Green New Deal [and] fare-free transit and those are issues that Michelle Wu is fighting for too. And I think that they would really be impactful on our generation.
What do you make of all of this media attention you’re getting around these progressive movements?
Most of the [newscycle] was that Kennedy was beating Markey and Markey was going to have this super embarrassing loss as a 30-year incumbent … and suddenly all of these [reporters] were sort of confused, like, How did Markey become this iconic figure for the youth? Why are so many supporting him? They thought that we reinvented Ed Markey, so it was cool that they came directly to us and we were able to tell the truth, like, No, we didn’t reinvent Ed Markey, we told the truth about his record … he’s a progressive politician and we care about progressive policies.
What motivated you to get involved in politics?
I think a lot of the motivation for my political involvement was personal and that I wanted to feel like I was doing something … just knowing there’s this looming climate crisis that is going to destroy my future, that is very burdensome to be thinking about all the time … [and] when I started organizing in more climate activist circles, I instead felt like I became someone who is protecting the earth instead of just watching it burn and get to ruin. And same with electoral organizing.
What are your thoughts on the Massachusetts Fourth Congressional primary race to replace Joe Kennedy?
I didn’t really strongly support any of the candidates, but yeah I’m not a fan of Jake Auchincloss at all. And that’s like super disappointing, which is why I’m excited that hopefully we will pass ranked choice voting in November.
What advice do you have for fellow 16-year-olds that want to get involved in politics?
I think a lot of people, at least in my generation, struggle with taking their political optimism off social media and into real life. I guess the phrase would be like they lack praxis—so they’re saying all of this stuff online but then not actually practicing it in real life. What I would say is, It’s going to be scary at first, it’s going to feel really unfamiliar, you’re going to have so much to learn, but it’s really just a matter of taking the initiative to get out of your house, go to one event or join a Zoom call and that often opens up a world of opportunities to you.