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.
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.
“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.”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.