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.