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A Gubernatorial (City) Staging in the 413 for 2014…

In the beginning. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—In one of the first televised debates of the general election for governor, all five of the candidates on the ballot faced off in a by turns colorful and ho-hum debate. Organized by the Western Massachusetts media consortium, the debate offered few surprises from the candidates, but did portend some vulnerabilities among the frontrunners.

Moderated by WGBY’s Jim Madigan, the debate drew a crowd that filled the orchestra level of City Stage in downtown. Whether by accident or design, Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley sat together at Madigan’s left while the founder of the United Independent Party, Evan Falchuk, sat with Independents Scott Lively and Jeffrey McCormick sat on the right.

Debate topics included climate change, energy, casinos, infrastructure and taxes. For the most part, the outlier of the debate—in nearly every way—was Lively, the controversial evangelical minister based in Springfield. Lively has been tied to anti-gay legislation in Uganda and has run a campaign focused on the Gospel—the Gospel according to Scott Lively at least.

McCormick seemed somewhat unmemorable. Often tagged as the sane, but conservative alternative to Charlie Baker, his answers, while okay, lacked the inspiration needed to pry away Baker’s voters. Falchuk, potentially was the wild card, maintaining a progressive tone, but in anti-establishment language that might also appeal to Bakerites.

Baker, visibly nervous to members of the audience, turned in a flat performance, offering little notable or what points were lacked panache in the delivery. His only emotion and highest point manifested itself in a sincere, but canned response to Lively odd complaint that “sexual perversion” is being taught in schools. Baker interpreted this as a slight against gays and lesbians and registered disgust, noting his brother was gay. Coakley chimed in after, noting her office’s opposition to DOMA.

Coakley, considerably less vague than in the primary, easily had one of her best performances to date. However, on some issues (other than Lively’s probably homophobic remarks, which received near-universal condemnation), she failed to draw as much of a distinction from Baker as she could have. There were contrasts and those presented certainly helped.

On a question on infrastructure allocating resources, Baker was—to put it generously—vague. He said he would meet with the mayors of the region and determine what they needed. Coakley countered that she already did that on a regular basis as AG and didn’t need a confab.

“I don’t have to spend my first year meeting with mayors around Massachusetts, I’ve been doing that during this campaign,” Coakely said namechecking Springfield Domenic Sarno and the mayors North Adams and New Bedford. Earlier she had offered her own economic development plan, which has evolved to include encouraging smart growth and developing infrastructure.

Falchuk, too, got in the act, reminding Baker that the election is the job interview and that telling people what you will do once in office is no good. Although some of Falchuk’s rhetoric had become familiar to point of fun to some as was the case with all of the candidates.

That exchange was not the only time Falchuk hit Baker explicitly, while mostly confining his criticism of Coakley to implication, namely Beacon Hill.  “Why is there a waiting list of over 40,000 kids in Massachusetts for early childhood education?” Falchuk asked. But, he added, “We’re spending a billion dollars to expand the Boston Convention Center.”

The crowd was more or less polite throughout per Jim Madigan. (WMassP&I)

On other issues, differences were less apparent. Baker, clearly making a play for union workers who (naively) believe in the potential of a casino, said he would propose legislation that would allow MGM Springfield to continue if the repeal succeeded. Coakley, who has a heavy base of labor support, seemingly echoed that. Falchuk, while opposing repeal, said he would abide by the people’s vote entirely. Lively, an opponent of gambling entirely. McCormick also said he favored repeal and would not support special legislation to excuse Springfield from the referendum.

Punctuating the debate, of course, were Lively’s comments. Aside from the Baker exchange, which Lively after the debate called a “cheap shot” and not a specific reference, the minster offered answers that ranged from funny to bizarre. He admitted to once being a pothead cautioning that medical marijuana was a beard for marijuana legalization. “This answer may cost me the election,” Lively said to laughter. “Marijuana is not good for you!” More laughter ensued. Lively later called global warming a scam and any temperature variations were caused by solar flares.

McCormick, in one of his memorable lines, said proof of global warming is not restricted to the weather on any given day.  “Well, Jim I’m not using as my only data point yesterday’s weather,” McCormick said to chuckling from the audience. “As a trained scientist, I very much believe it [climate change] is real.”

The rest of the candidates, agreed global warming was real. This question also tied to the proposed Kinder Morgan gas pipeline that would traverse Massachusetts to bring in natural gas. Opinions on the pipeline varied. Coakley and Falchuk oppose it. Baker, Lively and McCormick support it in principle.   Coakley, in describing her opposition to Kinder Morgan—which seemed quite clear, but nevertheless later required clarification—said bridge fuels were needed. However, she opposed Kinder Morgan as proposed. She described the need for more interim goals in meeting the commonwealth’s targets to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Although lost in a pool of unenthusiastic prose, Baker had his most substantive point (no disrespect Charlie’s bro) on the energy/climate change question. In context of reports of rising energy prices in Massachusetts, Baker noted that the problem Massachusetts faces as its coal plants shut down and the grid is strained by Vermont Yankee’s closure is a lack of transmission. Pipelines like Kinder Morgan relieve the burden, he argued, on gas prices, while Canadian hydroelectricity can help with electricity.

In 2010, Baker dryly said he “started talking about…how I thought the New England governors should be engaging more intense conversations with folks in Canada about Canadian hydro.”

At the risk of minimizing the third-party candidates too much it does appear Coakely, while not setting the stage on fire, landed some substantive punches on Baker. She hit him on the oscillating positions on early education and, on a question about infrastructure, about the transportation deficits left behind by Republican governor. Of course, that led to blows about the Big Dig as well.

“When I came in as attorney general, we had to deal with the financing issues around the Big Dig,” she said barely holding back a smile.

Coakley also announced her opposition to the ballot question that would nix the gas tax indexed to inflation as a reasonably way to arrest the deterioration of state infrastructure.

WGBY’s Jim Madigan moderated the debate. (via wgby.org)

Not all of the debates are expected to feature all five contenders, although at least a few more will. On some level, future debates with all five run the risk of being utterly overwhelmed by Lively. There are advantages and disadvantages for both Baker and Coakely in a 5-way versus a one-on-one. The City Stage debate in Springfield ultimately may be a crucial proving ground for both frontrunners as they consider debate strategy for future encounters.

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