Executive Privilege: A 2014 Pre-Caucus Congregation…
Executive Privilege is a series on the 2014 race for Governor and other Constitutional offices in Massachusetts.
NORTHAMPTON—Fresh on the heels of Gov. Deval Patrick’s last State of the Commonwealth, the batch of Democrats seeking to succeed him sparred politely Wednesday night ahead of the start of caucus season next month. The forum, run more like a multi-person debate, was organized by Hampshire County Democratic town committees and moderated by WGBY’s Jim Madigan.
All five Democratic gubernatorial candidates participated at the forum held in Northampton High’s auditorium including Surgeon and Health Insurance Exec Joe Avellone, President Obama’s former Medicare/Medicaid chief and doctor Don Berwick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Treasurer Steve Grossman and Juliette Kayyem, a former homeland security official for both Patrick and Obama. The event provided an opportunity for less known candidates to make their pitch to activists and more well-known candidates to capitalize on their organization and recent endorsements.
The format included previously disclosed community questions asked by Madigan and undiscloed questions from a media panel. Questions were directed at specific candidates but all had a chance to chime in, which they usually did. The media panel consisted of New England Public Radio’s Susan Kaplan, WWLP’s Laura Hutchinson and The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Stan Moultan.
Turnout was heavy swamping the parking lot adjacent to the high school prompting overflow parking along the street and a small lot nearby. On hand were dozens of local elected officials, activists and a few candidates for other offices including likely Hampden D.A. candidate Shawn Allyn, Lt. Gov candidate Mike Lake and Treasurer candidate Deb Goldberg. Other statewide races had a presence too. Recently installed Party Chair State Senator Tom McGee kicked off the forum after an introduction from party Treasurer and State Committeewoman Nicole LaChapelle.
“Last night’s forum showcased the energy and enthusiasm of the Democratic Party’s grassroots activism,” McGee said in a statement to WMassP&I. “Our five talented candidates for governor clearly expressed the ideas and values we know will work to keep moving our Commonwealth forward,” he continued noting education, transportation and health care among other issues.
LaChapelle echoed those remarks in an email, “As I introduced Chair McGee, I marveled at both the strong field of candidates sitting behind me and the huge audience. Each of our Democratic candidates puts forward world class credentials.”
The candidate’s introductions mirrored the approach each would take during the forum. Avellone discussed his business background, particularly in the health insurance market. Berwick cited his work treating patients and at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. Coakley lauded her work as AG with an emphasis on her campaign plans for education and mental health, a personal issue of hers since her brother committed suicide.
Grossman took part of his introduction to remember folksinger Pete Seeger, who died earlier this week and was a champion of progressive causes. Underscoring the Treasurer’s commitment to progressive causes has been a priority of his campaign to win the support of skeptical Democratic activists. Finally, Kayyem touted her work in the Patrick and Obama administrations. Throughout the forum, she would cite the work of the governor or back his positions.
The tenor of the forum was largely cordial, but a few subtle jabs from the press and to a lesser extent some candidates made clear Cokaley had the most to lose. Kaplan first questions Coakley inquired about the disarray of her campaign accounts. Her federal account was subject to scrutiny in The Globe and by the FEC, but Coakley said she corrected problems as soon as they were raised. “That account has been closed,” referring to her former federal account for her 2009-2010 Senate bid.
None of the other Democrats on the stage took the opportunity to hit Coakley over the campaign account snafu, but campaign financing would resurface in a community question on how the next governor would work to defeat Citizens United. The Hampshire County Belt of Western Mass is among the commonwealth’s most liberal regions and opposition to the 2010 Supreme Court case, which unleashed a torrent of money into politics, was shared by all of the candidates.
Coakley noted her own work as Attorney General on the issue and Grossman reiterated his call for candidates to sign a people’s pledge like the one signed last spring by Democrats Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey. Kayyem noted the difficulty and long term nature of such an effort which will likely include the next President. “I look forward to working with her,” Kayyem said to cheers.
Acclimation described some issues with few differences on the matter of gun control (more stringent laws and more mental health funding) or maintaining the commonwealth’s personal care attendants.
There was not support for House Sepaker Robert DeLeo’s plan to tie a minimum wage increase to unemployment reforms. Coakley repeated an earlier call to pass the State Senate’s wage bill, but both she and Kayyem said they would be open to changes that help businesses. Avellone said not raising the wage amounted to “a subsidy” to corporations and their shareholders that rely on low wage workers.
Grossman went further. While not ruling out changes to the unemployment system entire he declared if an unemployment proposal “came to my desk and cut benefits” or “raised eligibility requirements, I would veto it.”
The candidates largely agreed to look at additional revenue to fund education and infrastructure, but preferred to seek other options like growing the economy first. Avellone, notably, said he opposed new taxes.
While on the topic of Secure Communities, Grossman needled Coakley later on immigration issues. He noted that as candidate for US Senate, the AG opposed in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants and other pro-immigrant proposals. Otherwise, the candidates were in agreement on the need for the federal program originally intended to aid local police, to be remade or scrapped. Grossman noted, however, it remains the law and cannot be ignored.
Berwick got a cheer when he said, “I am the only candidate that has put single payer on the table.” Aside from Avellone, who opposes single payer and prefers a focus on decreasing health care costs, the other candidates rejected the suggestion they oppose single payer. Grossman repeating a point he made in an interview with WMassP&I (coming soon) saying he wants to work with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. That state seeks to implement a single payer system in the next few years.
Kayyem signaled an approach similar to Grossman. Coakley, for her part, also did not rule out single payer, but said Massachusetts needed to make other changes to the health care system first.
Among the sharpest divisions were over casinos. Berwick had previously come out for a voter initiative repealing the casino legislation. Avellone added his opposition, but said as long as the law is on the books it has to go forward. Coakley, who rejected the ballot question prompting an appeal to the courts, said casinos would not have been her “first choice for economic development,” and tried to dodge a question on how she would vote on a casino in her town. Moderator Madigan stepped in and extracted a “no.” Grossman, too, said he would personally vote no, but emphasized casinos would only be built by majority rule of host community. Kayyem referred to the safeguards built into the law.
The homeless being housed in hotels, a hot button issue in Western Massachusetts, also had its turn among the questions. Grossman cited the impact of shuttling families and the disruption it caused, suggesting a return to housing vouchers instead of putting up the homeless in hotels. While discussing welfare fraud, the Treasurer chided Congress for its recent vote to cut Food Stamp benefits. Eliciting another cheer from the crowd, Grossman praised Northampton’s Rep in DC, James McGovern, for his advocacy against cuts to the SNAP (food stamp) program. McGovern also voted no vote in the conference committee reconciling the House and Senate versions of the SNAP bill. The rest of the state’s delegation voted no or, in the case of Rep. Lynch, did not vote.
Coakley focused on tackling the root causes of homelessness using homeless veterans as an example. Kayyem, returning to an earlier promise to work with mayors to determine how needs vary across the state, pointed to affordable housing. Specifically, she said affordable housing needs vary noting that Boston needs dwellings within means of the lower and middle classes. Outside metro Boston, the issue is often about the overconcentration of the poor in Gateway cities.
All of the candidates promised better engagement with Western Mass. Berwick said he would be a presence as he always enjoys his visits west. Grossman noted his family ties to the area including meeting his wife at a Smith event his mother brought him to. Kayyem promised geographic diversity in her cabinet including Western Mass appointments. Avellone cautioned that a lack of attention could create “two state” of “haves and have nots” with the haves skewed east. Coakley cited growing up in Berkshire County and promised attention to local needs like improved broadband access.
In closing Avellone said Massachusetts could not afford “politics as usual” and urged support from voters. Berwick saying he was with “with Hubert Humphrey,” the late Minnesota Senator “who was right when he said the government has to meet the moral test” in its care for its citizens. Grossman said that he was in the “solutions business” and wanted to do the same for the commonwealth. Coakley closed by emphasizing the choices ahead and a note on mental health while Kayyem emphasized her personal story as the child of immigrants.
The candidates had gathered in Pittsfield earlier this month, but this will likely be the only time all five will be together in Western Mass before the Democratic party’s caucuses. McGee, the party chair referred to the beginning of caucus season in his statement, “Next week we launch our month-long caucus process, where more than 500 grassroots meetings will take place to elect thousands of delegates.”
Delegates elected will then vote in the June Democratic convention and determine who will actually be on the September statewide office primary ballot. The Democratic nominee will then face the GOP’s pick in November. Charlie Baker, the 2010 nominee, is the presumptive frontrunner as of now, who some see as better poised for victory this year.
LaChapelle, alluding to the size of crowd, was undeterred, “…eight months before the primary, [the audience] answered my question if there was interest in the Democratic Gubernatorial primary with a resounding yes!”
McGee noted enthusiasm for the field of five gubernatorial candidates, five lieutenant governor candidates, and three each for attorney general and treasurer. “The positive, ideas-based campaigning…is building the excitement we need to win in November, while our Republican counterparts can’t even field a full ticket,” he said in his statement.