MALDEN — The yellow two-story house, squeezed snugly into a blue-collar neighborhood, has been the place Edward J. Markey has called home since he was a toddler and the link to his congressional district since he ran for office 37 years ago.
But his critics view the house as the base he left behind when he became a figure in Washington, married a Beltway player, and purchased a grander house, triple the size, on a leafy cul de sac in the exclusive Rolling Hills neighborhood of Chevy Chase, Md.
Markey, even as he has cruised easily to reelection every two years, has never fully shaken questions about his residence, and by extension, his allegiance to the people he represents.
The Democratic House member was fully aware his residency could be an issue when he declared in December that he would run for Senate in the special election to replace John F. Kerry, now the secretary of state. He polled potential voters, in an unreleased internal survey, on whether it mattered to them. And former senator Scott Brown, a Republican, publicly revived the issue by questioning whether Markey lives in Massachusetts.
A Globe review of the residency question has found mixed results.
Markey’s Malden water bills suggest he is there infrequently, paying only the monthly minimum for service. Mortgage documents on his two homes tell an ambiguous tale, with both homes listed at various points as his primary residences. House records show that he and his staff have spent less annually from his official budget on travel over the last four years than any of the state’s other House members, which could suggest he travels back to his district less often.
At the same time, longtime neighbors in Malden, and local politicians, say Markey is part of their community and is active in using his position to push local development and public works projects. The question has never become a big enough problem to prompt a strong electoral opponent, a further indication that it may not be viewed as a major concern to those in his district.
There is no rule or law that dictates how much time a congressman must live in his or her home district. House members typically leave their families in their districts during the week and return when House business concludes Thursday evening. But in recent decades, the pressure on lawmakers to live in their hometowns has increased.
Markey has been able to leave signs of his presence in both places. Around Washington, he and his wife, Susan Blumenthal, a health care consultant and former high-ranking official in the Clinton administration, appeared frequently for a time in the society pages. But Markey also makes it into local newspapers in his congressional district, cutting ribbons and speaking at City Council meetings.
The congressman says he made 34 round trips from Washington to Boston last year, but he declined a Globe request to provide his daily schedules for the last two years. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Representative Stephen F. Lynch, also declined. Lynch keeps a primary home in South Boston, where he is seen frequently and where his wife also lives.
By contrast, Representative Michael E. Capuano’s office supplied a list of dates showing he had spent more than half his nights in his Somerville home over the past two years.
Markey and Representative James P. McGovern of Worcester are the only members of the state’s House delegation to own houses in or around the District of Columbia, with members of their families living there.
“My home is and always will be in Malden,” Markey said in an interview Friday. “We have a house in Maryland because both my wife and I have to work in Washington during the week, but Malden is my home.”
“I am no different than any congressman or senator,’’ he added. “You have to work in Washington during the week. But I think my work in serving the district over the years is clear.”
For generations, members of Congress have been torn between their obligations to craft bills in Washington while remaining part of the communities that elect them.
That tension increased as air travel has become cheaper and anti-Washington sentiment has grown. There are many who argue, however, that the dwindling population of lawmakers spending time together in off hours has contributed to Washington gridlock, because members of the opposing parties no longer know one another’s families and values.
For most of his career in the House, Markey did not own his Malden home, even as he listed it as his residence. One or both of his parents owned it until 2000, when his father died. Although the Markey family home is small and located on a fraction of an acre with no lawn, he said he has a strong sentimental attachment to the property.
“When my mother became ill with Alzheimer’s, my father decided that he wanted to keep her in the home on Townsend Street under his care,’’ Markey said. “He was a hero to me and my brothers. I decided to help him, so I made the decision that I was going to live with my father as he cared for my mother.”
In 2001, Markey purchased the home from his father’s estate for $150,000.
By then though, Markey’s living arrangements had already earned him criticism, and even ribbing from fellow Democrats.
In the mid 1990s, the Boston Herald quoted the old-school South Boston congressman, Joe Moakley, telling McGovern, then a freshman, that a congressman needed to own a home in his district. Many at the time saw it as a shot at Markey.
“No living in mummy’s house anymore,” Moakley said. “That just doesn’t cut it with voters.”
“Voters want a congressman who gets the same tax bills they do, a guy who feels the pinch when the MWRA’s water bills are skyrocketing,” continued Moakley, then the dean of the delegation.
Markey’s Malden home at 7 Townsend St., assessed at $204,800, is now listed as his principal residence. His 2001 mortgage for the property — and his 2003 refinancing — list the home as his principal residence.
But that issue is complicated for Markey. He has never taken advantage of the city’s popular primary residential tax break that would have saved him 50 percent on his $3,252 annual property tax bill. Markey said he “may have known at different points of time” about the availability of the tax break, “but I didn’t focus on it aggressively enough.”
Markey and his wife own a second home in Chevy Chase, purchased in 1991 and now assessed at just over $1 million. That home has also been listed at times as the couple’s principal residence, both in mortgage documents and the county tax rolls.
There is also no indication from the tax bills Markey provided to the Globe that he and his wife benefited from the separate homestead tax credit available to taxpayers in Montgomery County, Maryland, during the nearly 10 years their Chevy Chase home was listed as their principal residence. Markey said the banks were aware that his Malden home was his main residence. He said the Chevy Chase home was listed by the bank as a primary residence because it is owner-occupied and he does not rent it out or use it as a vacation home.
A handful of congressmen from other parts of the country ran into controversies several years ago when it was reported they had taken advantage of the homestead tax cuts on houses they had bought in Maryland and had claimed were their primary residences. At least one was forced to repay the tax benefits after a House ethics committee review. Markey was never implicated.
Markey also provided the Globe with a 2003 affidavit that he and Blumenthal signed for the Maryland mortgage refinancing in which the borrowers are asked their intent on the property’s use.
But that document only added to the confusion. Two boxes were checked — one deeming the property “a second home,’’ the other calling it a “primary residence’’ — leaving it unclear which of the two categories they were choosing.
The water bills on Markey’s Malden home, dating back to July 2007, show that he has never paid more than the city’s minimum charge, which ranged from $8 to $11. That means Markey consumed, at most, about a third of the water used by an average Malden household, according to records. In some months in 2007 and 2008, Markey consumed no more than a fifth of a typical Malden household. Markey said he uses little water when he is in Malden because he eats out at events and has no lawn.
Neighbors and local political leaders say Markey is connected to the community.
“He absolutely is there all the time, so why is there any question?” said Pino Iacuzzi, a 44-year-old mason contractor who has lived next door to the Markey family for most of his life. “I see Eddie a lot.”
Another longtime neighbor, Michael Cook, put Markey campaign signs outside most of the houses on the small street after Markey announced his Senate candidacy and reporters started showing up interviewing neighbors about Markey’s residency.
It appears that Markey also has made efforts to shore up some of that support on his street.
Fei Hao, a 25-year-old masters degree student at Northeastern University from China, said Markey made a special effort to introduce himself when Fei was walking outside recently.
Political leaders and city officials also closed ranks behind Markey, saying they see him at Starbucks, Boston Market, or a pan-Asian restaurant called All Seasons Table, and at important meetings when his help is necessary to get government support for redevelopment projects.
“He’s a Malden guy,” said David D’Arcangelo, a Republican city councilor. “This is his base of support. I’d be surprised if there’s anybody who’s going to bad-mouth him here.”
He may be a Malden guy, but over the years, he’s also been a Beltway name, particularly in the 1990s, when he and his wife were regulars on the Washington party circuit. Washingtonian magazine once called him and his wife “a very desirable twofer” on the social scene and put them on a separate list of couples who are “always in demand.” The Washington Times labeled them “the very social Rep. Ed Markey and Susan Blumenthal.”
Markey’s name has shown up less in those pages in recent years. And Markey’s neighbors in Rolling Hills—professionals in sprawling homes set high above the street — say he is not one to throw parties at the house there. If anything, he’s cutting the grass or working on the yard.
Martin T. Meehan, the former US representative who is now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said a lawmaker’s time in the district is not the best measure of his value. Markey, he said, has been a key lawmaker, heading subcommittees and crafting legislation.
“If you’re actually writing laws rather than voting on laws, you need to be in Washington,” Meehan said. “It can’t be done just Tuesday to Thursday.”