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Coakley,Baker Clash In First Head-To-Head Debate

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The two major party candidates for governor of Massachusetts, locked in a dead heat with just less than two weeks until Election Day, met for their first face-to-face broadcast debate last night.

Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley and Republican businessman Charlie Baker clashed over taxes and a mandate for earned sick time while defending their records on issues that have been the focus of campaign ads paid for by super PACs.

Coakley, who was asked how she would increase state revenue without impacting the middle class, said she was open to raising taxes on the wealthy.

"We are exploring ways to do a more graduated income tax. The legislature has just done a study on that."

Massachusetts taxes all income levels at a flat 5.25 percent rate. A graduated income tax has been a political non-starter since 1994 when a ballot question on the issue was defeated by almost a million votes.

Baker, who has not made a blanket no new taxes pledge, said he would not raise taxes” just to pay the state’s bills.”  He added, " Most of these tax increases, property taxes, fees for after school sports all land on the middle class and that is one of the reasons why I've said I am not going to raise taxes."

Coakley said she would vote for a question on the ballot next month that would require businesses to provide earned sick time to employees. She rejected claims by critics that it will cost jobs.

" It is absolutely a cost of doing business they will be able to afford. This is a right for people."

Baker defended an alternative he has advanced that would limit the earned sick time mandate to businesses with 50 or more employees, even though that would leave an estimated 1.2 million workers ineligible for the benefit.

" I support doing this. I will work aggressively with the legislature to get this done, but I do worry a lot that if we are all concerned about jobs and small businesses ability to grow  and thrive this puts us at a disadvantage."

Baker and Coakley sat close to each other at a round table for the hour-long debate held in the studios of WGBH in Boston. The debate was co-sponsored by The Boston GlobeWAMC aired the debate live and it can be heard in full on our website.

Coakley repeatedly criticized Baker for sharply raising premiums and outsourcing some jobs that went overseas when he ran Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

" I would not make those choices, Charlie," said Coakley.  " There were jobs that went to India after Harvard Pilgrim had been turned around and people left without mental health care because of your decisions."

Baker defended his record at Harvard Pilgrim, insisting his decisions prevented bankruptcy and the potential loss of thousands of jobs throughout the state’s health care industry.

"For me it has always been about people. It bothers me that a guy who is pretty facile with math, which does matter when you are talking about a $38 billion budget, is somehow considered to be somebody who does not care about people."

Neither Baker nor Coakley, when given a chance by the debate moderator, would disavow campaign ads paid for by super PACs that support their respective candidacies.

Baker said he disliked the tone of an ad that targets Coakley’s defense of a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. It implies she blocked reforms at the child welfare agency that might have prevented the deaths of children.

" I think that ad is heinous," said Coakley.  " Unless we take the People's Pledge, and Charlie has refused to, there is no way to control these ads."

Pointing out the first negative ad of the race was from a super PAC  that supported Coakley, Baker said, " She does not have any credibility on this issue in my opinion."

Coakley said a super PAC ad criticizing Baker’s tenure at Harvard Pilgrim is factual because it points out his salary increased to over a million dollars while health insurance premiums rose sharply

This was the first debate of the general election campaign for governor that did not include any of the three independent candidates – Evan Falchuck, Jeff McCormack, and Scott Lively – who are on the November ballot.

Polls for the last several weeks have put Baker and Coakley in a statistical tie, while the three independents combine for roughly 5 percent of the vote.

Baker, who held top positions in the administrations of Republican Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, lost his first bid for governor by a large margin to Democrat Deval Patrick in 2010. Patrick is not seeking a third term.

Coakley, who is trying to become the first woman elected governor in Massachusetts, is trying to overcome her stunning loss to Republican Scott Brown in the 2010 special election for U.S. Senate.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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