A debate with a twist

Jehlen will face off against head of education group that’s spending heavily to oust her

This story has been updated to reflect correct PAC spending by the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

KICKING OFF THE Labor Day weekend will be a debate Friday between combatants in a spirited Democratic showdown for state Senate, one of just a handful of contested races being decided in next Thursday’s state primary.

But it will come with an unusual twist. The debate won’t be between the two candidates who will appear on the Democratic ballot, but will instead feature one of them, incumbent Sen. Patricia Jehlen, going up against the head of an advocacy group that Jehlen says has become her real opponent in the race because of the organization’s heavy spending on behalf of her challenger.

Jehlen, a veteran liberal lawmaker from Somerville, is being challenged by Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung. Charter school expansion, which Jehlen strongly opposes and Cheung supports, has emerged as a flash point in the race, much as it has divided Democrats across the state and country.

Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter advocacy group, has spent $98,000 to date to support Cheung, a huge sum for state Senate race.

Outside money isn’t coming into the race only on Cheung’s side. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has reported $77,232 in campaign spending directed against Cheung and in support of Jehlen.

On Thursday, decrying the outside money being spent by Democrats for Education Reform to support Cheung, Jehlen challenged DFER’s Massachusetts director, Liam Kerr, to a debate.

He accepted, and they plan to square off Friday at noon in a debate on charter schools and the role of outside money in the race. Mike Deehan of WGBH News will moderate the encounter at the State House, which he plans to stream via Facebook Live.

In early August, DFER deposited $200,000 in its PAC account from Education Reform Now Advocacy, a New York-based affiliate of the group, to spend on Massachusetts campaigns, including Cheung’s.

“That makes them my real opponents in this race, so they are the ones I should be debating, not the Cambridge city councilor whose name appears on the ballot,” Jehlen said in her debate challenge.

Kerr said he’s eager to talk about the charter school issue.

“We have the facts on our side. We have the public on our side. We have families on our side. We have Barack Obama on our side. We’ll debate anytime, anywhere,” he said.

For his part, though he’s being cut out of Friday’s showdown between Jehlen and Kerr, Cheung said he was glad to hear about it.

“I won our debates where she tried to bring up the issues of charter schools,” he said. “I hope they do debate, because she’s going to lose that one too.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Cheung’s campaign is forbidden from coordinating any activities with DFER, just as Jehlen is not permitted to coordinate with the MTA. “It looks like they only started to get involved after the MTA came after me with attack ads,” Cheung said of the DFER spending.

 

  • Michael

    Leland Cheung said “I won our debates where she tried to bring up the issues of charter schools,” he said. “I hope they do debate, because she’s going to lose that one too.” That’s odd, when I saw Leland debate Pat Jehlen at Lesley University he did not have an opinion on charter schools. In fact he was not certain about his support for unlimited charter schools to late August. It took him that long to figure out why he, a former Republican and now moderate Democrat is running against progressive Democrat Pat Jehlen for the 2nd Middlesex state senate seat.

    • jshore

      I saw that debate at Lesley University also. Leland Cheung vacillated on any relevant questions to the point I wondered why he was even bothering to run!

  • Michael Grunko

    Strange thing about DFER’s “Independent” expenditures on behalf of Mr. Cheung, It seems that DFER is doing all the mailing, while Leland is doing almost none. Meanwhile, Jehlen’s campaign is mailing like crazy and the independent expenditures (largely mailings) by MTA and other unions is redundant to the extreme. You judge.

  • Joe Lynch

    Even stranger is the fact I moderated a televised debate between the two at Cambridge Community Television and the only difference between the candidates was over the charter school ballot question. But voters won’t vote on that till November. Seems to me that the yes on 2 folks wasted a lot of money here. I would have waited to pour money into my objective till October.