By G. Michael Dobbs
NORTHAMPTON – At their initial presentation to voters of Western Massachusetts, the five Democratic gubernatorial candidates took pains to try to cut themselves out of the pack without stepping on the toes of their colleagues.
The five gubernatorial Democratic candidates Attorney General Martha Coakley, Treasurer Steven Grossman, Donald Berwick, Joseph Avellone and Juliette Kayyem formally introduced themselves at a two-hour candidate forum at Northampton High School on Jan. 29.
Coakley and Grossman have the most name recognition to statewide voters. Grossman has been a frequent visitor to Western Massachusetts through his leadership of the Massachusetts School Building Authority as well as his initiative to put state funds into local banks to be used as business loans.
Coakley’s campaign was clearly in repair mode after her disastrous run for Senate against Scott Brown. Her supporters were out in force at the high school holding huge signs.
Avellone, a surgeon and Lt. Cmdr. in the Naval Reserve, is the former chief operating officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and is currently the corporate senior vice president of PAREXEL International, a global bio-pharmaceutical company. His two priorities would be reducing the cost of health care and helping to create thousands of jobs.
Berwick is also a doctor – a pediatrician – who was asked by President Barack Obama to lead the Medicare and Medicaid programs. He co-founded the nonprofit Institute for Health Care Improvement. He noted proudly that conservative pundit Glenn Beck called him “the second most dangerous man in America.”
Kayyem is an attorney who also served in Washington for Obama as the assistant secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. She said, “There are many ways to describe me.” She has taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School and was a columnist for the Boston Globe as well.
They answered questions from the public and from Laura Hutchinson of TV22, Susan Kaplan of WFCR and Stanley Moulton of The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Jim Madigan of WGBY moderated the evening.
The only moments of unease centered around Coakley. A question from Kaplan about recently revealed campaign finance issues brought a quick answer from Coakley, “We heard about it and corrected it.” She acknowledged there was “sloppiness” about the record keeping.
None of the other candidates were willing to pile in on her with Kayyem making the observation that she wanted voters to remember her for what she said about the issues rather than comments about the attorney general.
Kaplan had a more contentious exchange with Coakley by asking the candidates if there had been a vote in their town about a casino if they would have voted in favor.
Coakley said the question would be “moot,” as her hometown of Medford would be too small for a casino. Kaplan pressed her on the point and Coakley answered that she wouldn’t have approved of it, when asked one more by Madigan.
Grossman said he wouldn’t vote for a casino in his hometown and reminded the audience that no casino is going into a community where it wasn’t approved by voters. Kayyem lauded the casino legislation, which offers more safeguards than similar laws in other states.
Avellone said he wouldn’t vote for one and stated the potential for jobs created by a casino have been “over-sold.” Berwick said, “I’m against casinos and for the repeal. He is concerned about the effect on the state lottery and that online gaming will follow.
Kaplan also asked the candidates their views on improving public education by closing the achievement gap and how to pay for such an effort.
Avellone said he has a plan on his website and that closing the achievement gap would be “the highest priority of administration.” He said that by lowering the cost of health care, the state could fund both pre-kindergarten programs and longer school days. He said that he would advocate for more vocational training and science, technology, engineering and math programs.
Berwick said, “Schools are the on-ramp to success in our society.” He would support a teacher workforce.
Coakley said studies have shown that pre-kindergarten programs help and pointed out the criminal justice system costs more than education.
Grossman said the next governor must look at the Chapter 70 formula – state aid to school districts – to make it fair.
Kayyem said her goals, as a mother, would be her same goals as governor. She too supports universal pre-kindergarten programs.
None of the candidates supported the idea of linking an increase in the state’s minimum wage to cutbacks in the costs and benefits of unemployment insurance.
On implementing a single-payer health insurance program in the state, there was division.
Grossman supports a single-payer plan. “We should never take single-payer off the table, not for a moment,” he said.
Kayyem believes that “single-payer is the way the world should be,” however she noted that 98 percent of state residents have health insurance. She believes the states should work on reducing rates and medical costs, “talk seriously about public health and support community health centers.”
Avellone doesn’t support single-payer and said the current system is successful. The focus should be on keeping it affordable, he added. He noted he is the only candidate who has successfully controlled health care costs.
Berwick said that he led a single payer system – Medicare and Medicaid – said it is “the way to go in this state.” He said the federal program had 1 percent overhead cost, but private insurers argue that 15 percent is not enough.
Coakley believes that reducing current costs should be the priority and doesn’t believe the state is ready for move to a single-payer system.
In speaking specifically about Western Massachusetts, all of the candidates pledged to work for more funding for regional transit authorities and advocate for the availability of broadband. Kayyem said she would appoint people from the region to her cabinet and both Coakley and Grossman emphasized their local roots.
To learn more about the candidates go to www.berwickforgovernor.com
, and http://stevegrossman.com