The five candidates hoping to become the next governor of Massachusetts met in western Massachusetts last night for their first broadcast debate. With five weeks to Election Day, and polls indicating a close race, the frontrunners played it safe and avoided gaffes.
Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley differed on the need for universal preschool and indexing the gasoline tax to inflation during a mostly cordial hour-long debate in Springfield Monday night that also included the three independent candidates for governor.
Coakley highlighted early education as an issue where she and Baker really differ. Baker said the state needs to improve elementary schools and he referenced studies that question the long term benefits of preschool.
" Children coming out of pre-k programs that enter into schools that are not up to the capability they need to be actually loose all the benefit of pre-k by the time they get to third grade," Baker said.
Coakley has called for state funding to eliminate a waiting list of 17,000 children seeking admission to preschool.
" I asked a teacher the other day if you can tell when kids come in if they've had a chance at pre-k, and she said of course there is a huge difference. The studies, despite what Charlie says, show it makes a difference," Coakley said.
Television ads paid for by a political action committee that backs Baker have hit Coakley for supporting an increase in the state’s gasoline tax. Coakley said the state’s economy could suffer if there’s no money to pay for road and bridge repairs.
" We can not do it if we do not have a predictable identifiable source for that kind of investment."
Baker said rather than raise the gas tax Massachusetts should rein in transportation costs, which he said rank much higher than in other states.
" We've got to figure out how to do this stuff better and cheaper and in some cases faster."
The candidates all agreed on the need for a regional strategy for economic development and each highlighted personal or professional connections to western Massachusetts. The debate was held in front of an audience of about 300 at the City Stage theater in Springfield. It was sponsored by a consortium of media outlets.
Asked by debate moderator Jim Madigan to state a position on the controversial Kinder Morgan gas pipeline project, Coakley said she opposed it, but supports finding other ways to bring more natural gas into Massachusetts.
"I have said I do not believe the Kinder Morgan program is the right solution for Massachusetts. I, as governor, will bring together our ' best and brightest' to find out how to meet our energy needs with bridge-fuels like cleaner-than-coal gas."
Baker did not state a position on the pipeline project, but said a different energy policy utilizing more natural gas might have avoided a pending spike in electricity rates this winter.
"As we sit here today, we are still debating whether you can even pursue something along the existing right-of-ways of the existing natural gas infrastructure, which if he had planned for over the past four years people might be sitting here looking at that 37 percent increase, and that is too bad."
Independent Evan Falchuck, who has campaigned against what he calls the political establishment, took digs at both Coakley and Baker for saying they might pursue a casino in Springfield even if voters repeal the state’s casino law.
"When I hear the comments from both Charlie and Martha, that if the law is repealed they are going to go to the legislature and try to get it ( the casino) back here in Springfield, I think that defies credibility."
Another independent in the governor’s race, venture capitalist Jeff McCormick, called for changing the status quo in state government.
"Beacon Hill has to change. It has to become friendly for business."
The only sharp exchange came when independent candidate Scott Lively, an evangelical minister, blamed the state’s problems on the erosion of Christian values.
" We are promoting sexual perversion to children in the public schools," Lively asserted.
" That was kind of a veiled reference to gay people," said Baker. " As the brother of a gay man who is married and lives in Massachusetts I find it offensive."
Polls show Baker and Coakley in a dead heat. The three independents are polling in the low single digits. Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, is leaving after two terms.