Night of the backfiring attacks

Posted by Jeremy Shulkin

Last night all six democratic candidates gathered in one room at the The Willows retirement community for their final debate before the September 14 primary. Here are a few brief observations/conclusions I came away with, with more explanation underneath:

1) The top three candidates to beat are (in no particular order) Joff Smith, Margot Barnet and John Mahoney — in their own eyes and in the eyes of the other three candidates.

2) The candidates were on their guard. Most times when a candidate was attacked for a position, endorsement or former vote, it backfired on the attacker. At times this solidified support for the “victim” and simply made the attacker look silly.

3) Candidates stayed away from hot-button social issues (same-sex marriage, abortion) and managed to avoid illegal immigration too.

It’s easy to gage who thinks who’s the front-runner because panelist Dianne Williamson essentially asked that question. Originally addressing her query to John Mahoney, she asked who he thought was the front-runner and to say why that person shouldn’t be voted for, and moderator Hank Stolz allowed others to chime in. Mahoney picked Smith, Smith picked Perotto, and Perotto fired back at Smith.

Perotto’s inclusion in that mini-debate was a little unexpected, and for the rest of the night the only time he got to mix it up with other candidates was when he started it himself (focusing on Margot Barnet, Don Sharry and Smith). Smith didn’t seem too worried about whether or not he had a main rival, spending most of his time lauding his voting record and defending it against attacks from Mahoney and Perotto.

Smith’s consistent voting record is one of the longest and the most recent “paper trail,” so most of the charges against Smith had to do with council votes. Mahoney and Perotto said that Smith’s assertions that he’s always voted for the lowest residential tax rate for homeowners are disengenious, because they actually raised taxes on businesses, which drove them out of the city, and created a vacuum that actually raised taxes for homeowners. (Perotto is the owner of an insurance agency and Mahoney owns/works for two small businesses in the city.)

Any kind of attack on a candidate’s record or position rarely worked last night (and on two specific occasions it backfired on the attacker).

It’s no secret that Barnet has been endorsed by some heavy-hitting unions, including nurses and teachers. As Perotto pried into those endorsements, calling them “special interests,” Barnet asked if he sought endorsements as well. He answered that he did, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re “trying to control you.” (After the debate, a source from another campaign said the correct response would have been “Yes, we met, but I wouldn’t agree with their demands.”)

The other gaffe was a Mahoney attack on Smith for using his political power to get a road paved that raised the value of his family’s company, Goldstein Scrap Metal. Mahoney’s mistake? His source was a publication that, as Smith pointed out, recently smeared a Worcester firefighter. He then got the audience on his side by mentioning that certain writer’s feud with Dianne Williamson. When Mahoney clarified to mean Harding Street, Smith pointed out that his family’s business isn’t located there.

Other times candidates tried to snare someone in a “gotcha” moment, usually at the expense of Sharry. Perotto asked him what he would do about chapter 58, without explaining what it was. Sharry admitted to not knowing what it was because he wasn’t previously a politician, and Perotto essentially gave him a “shame on you” response for not knowing it was regarding health insurance and the Commonwealth Connector. Sharry works in the health insurance field as well.

Soon after, Barnet pulled a similar move, asking Sharry if he were elected what subcommittee would he like to serve on. Sharry replied that he would like to serve on the committee that had to do with health care, but Barnet wanted a specific name, which Sharry couldn’t provide.

In the news leading up the debates, and during parts of the last one, the social views of the candidates was expected to take a front row. That never really materialized. Sharry and Mahoney were looked at being the furthest to the right of the group in terms of same-sex marriage and abortion, but there was no mention of the topics yesterday. Illegal immigration came up briefly, in a question asked to Smith regarding whether or not they should be eligible for state benefits, but he showed his political swiftness by giving the line I’ve heard echoed all over (most recently by Gov. Patrick): that safeguards are in place to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Other random notes:
-Despite Mahoney’s gaffe he performed well and kept his responses clear and concise. Surprisingly, he didn’t bring up his sticker campaign for the seat two years ago. It would be very easy for him to get on a high horse and ask “Where were you all when this wasn’t an open seat?”

-DiBaro didn’t get too much mic time, but hammered home her point about being new to politics. She did get a good jab in though after Dianne Williamson’s question about who the front-runner is, asking “Can we say why we shouldn’t vote for either of them?” after Smith and Perotto went back and forth.

-Barnet tried to cram a lot into her responses, but she often ran over time which sometimes made her sound flustered. She was the only candidate who specifically mentioned revitalizing Worcester’s marketing budget to attract visitors and business.

-Sharry worked to keep the conversation on what he knows best: health care, pointing to the national hc law that’s about to come into effect. Sharry’s idea is to dissolve the Commonwealth Connector.

-There were a couple groaner comments made. In the debate over unions and special interest groups, DiBaro said the district is her only special interest. During closing remarks, Smith said he wasn’t going to read a prepared statement, but would rather “speak from the heart.” After both statements the crowd stood up for one big group hug.

-Consensus seems to be this will be a very, very tight race, with a few local pols and campaign staffers agreeing that the top two may only be separated by 100 votes or so.

-While most aren’t concerned about a Sharry victory, the Smith campaign would like to see him do well, betting that he’ll pull votes away from Mahoney — he’s probably the candidate they see as Smith’s most legitimate challenger.

-Who did the debate help? Smith and Mahoney came out looking the “readiest” for the seat. DiBaro kept her name out there without making any mistakes. Barnet may have been expected to do a little better, but was the only candidate to tie different issues together (school choice + affordable housing) and talk about green jobs.

-Who didn’t pull in extra votes? Perotto, Sharry. Perotto did a lot of talking, but much of it was attacking. He fell back on his city council record and health care, but the “I’m already a politician” angle has been taken by Smith, and health care will be a bigger issue in the general election rather than in the primary.



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7 responses to “Night of the backfiring attacks

  1. I do think Barnet’s question about which subcommittee Sharry would like to work on was a touch unfair.

    As anyone who works in the legislative line of business knows, what subcommittee you want and what you get can be two very different things. You might want to be involved with small business development and end up with environmental affairs, and you’ve kind of just got to suck it up and make it your own.

  2. Candidates stayed away from hot-button social issues (same-sex marriage, abortion) and managed to avoid illegal immigration too…

    So there you have it folks… unwilling or afraid to address the issues that affect your life directly or indirectly. The very people who will influence the issues just won’t talk about them publically. So whats the point of a debate?

  3. Prometheus

    My random thoughts on the debate:

    Smith was shouting into the mic. Overcoached?
    DiBarro appeared upset at the end of the night. Probably because she was largely ignored.

    Perotto hurt himself every time he attacked someone.

    Barnet got that shot in on Perotto wanting spec interest money, but she was lackluster outside of that.

    The disturbing part about all of the Dem is that none of them said they would cut taxes. None of them even stood up and said that they would not raise taxes. So if they do, they are not breaking any campaign promises.

    The panel did not ask about bills that they would likely be voting on next legislative session.

    Bills that are likely are:

    The Perry Amendment
    The One Gun a Month Bill
    The Bill to Address Civil Right and Gun Violence
    Question 1 was briefly mentioned but should have had more discussion. Barnet bombed on that one.
    Question 3 was not discussed at all, though Perottot talked about it on the radio and sounded like Deval Patrick, before Deval said that he would ignore the will of the people.

    While all of them claimed Jobs is the major issue, none gave specifics about how we could create jobs other than with Taxpayer money/casinos. None of them seem to have a clue about how government policy kills jobs.

    Smith came off as arrogant.
    Barnet was confusing to listen to.
    Perotto was boring and disingenuous with his “I’ll be an Ambassador” talk and his attacks on special interests especially when he has taken money from lobbyists in the past.

    Sharry looked confused but that was clearly the intent of the questioning from the other candidates.

    The only one that really came out looking good was Hank Stolz and Mr. Kennedy.

    I really don’t believe that any of the seniors in the room were convinced based on the comments of the nice lady in the front row at the very end. She was on the radio this morning and said that she liked Gina Dibaro the best because she seemed to ‘listen’.

    I call this race a toss up.

    It will come down to boots on the ground.

    Good thing the voting booth is secret. These candidates seem like they would love to know how everyone votes.

    I believe that the 3rd Congressional race primary is more important and that the Unaligned voters should pull a Republican ballot and decide who will unseat McGovern.

    Ciao Baby

  4. Cara

    Wait, I’m confused Prometheus- You find it disturbing that none of the “Dems” said they’d cut taxes? Are you aware of the difference between Dems and Republicans? I mean, I know some of the candidates aren’t, but really, the fact that you EXPECT Dems to be promising tax cuts is a sad statement on where our level of debate in Massachusetts is.

  5. Prometheus


    Where do you expect the discussion to be.

    We have taxed the citizens and the small businesses to near extinction. 40k people (net) left taxachusetts in 2008. The number are not in for 2009, but I am told we have not gotten the 40k back that we lost in 2008. The silent majority has awoken and they have had enough of the tax and spend mentality of both parties.

    Again, what do you wish to talk about?
    Gay Marriage?
    Health Care for all?

    Which of the above will bring businesses back to MA?

    Lets hear it GuRL.

  6. The Commonwealth had a net gain of just under 100k people between July 2008 and July 2009. I believe thats the largest one year gain in over 20 years.

    The real problem with our current political/social climate is not enough people have read the 2000 Nobel Prize winning Dunning–Kruger study.

    Kind of gives the Prometheus moniker a nice ironic spin, no?

  7. Cara

    No, I don’t think civil rights issues should ever be up for debate. But healthcare costs being cut through a universal pool could certainly bring businesses that wouldn’t, so sure, let’s talk about universal healthcare. But I also don’t think tax cuts bring businesses that are worth bringing, and I don’t expect anyone who calls them Democrats to believe that lie either. Another fool for the disproven myth of Reaganomics. Corporations in this country barely pay any taxes as it is.

    I would like, at a Democratic debate, any taxes talk be focused on a progressive income tax, which would take some of the boulders off the backs of the working and middle class. But overall, we are barely in the top half of Tax Burden, according to the Tax Foundation ( It’s a myth that dates back to John Adams, and the fact that you’re still repeating the meme is a sad state of Republican fear-mongering. Want lower taxes? Then give up mail, roads, schools, fire departments, electricity, police, bridges, and the Wal-Mart that relied on tax-incentives to get built.

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