Gonzalez, Massie share stage — and views
Debate reveals little difference between Democrats on issues
HE WAS NOWHERE to be seen, but Gov. Charlie Baker came in for a pummeling as the two Democrats vying for the right to take him on in November trained their fire on the state’s popular incumbent Republican, not each other, in a debate on Thursday afternoon at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie took turns tagging Baker as a cautious leader and failed fix-it governor, whose reputation for management know-how has not translated to tangible improvements in state government.
When it came to differences between the two Democratic hopefuls, the contrast was more one of style than substance, as they agreed on nearly every question posed by WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti and Boston Globe political editor Shira Center. The debate was sponsored by WBUR, the Globe, and the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston.
With President Trump leading the country backwards, said Gonzalez, it’s more important than ever for Massachusetts to lead. “But we’re not leading under Charlie Baker. He’s a status quo, wait-and-see governor, and it’s not good enough,” said Gonzalez, a former health care executive who served as budget chief under Gov. Deval Patrick.
He vowed to ensure high quality, affordable preschool and day care for all children in the state, and to make the MBTA “a transit system that people can actually depend on to get to work on time.”
Massie, an environmental activist who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1994, said the state needs a more ambitious agenda on everything from climate change to affordable housing and the economy.
Both candidates said the state needs to invest more in things like transportation and education, and Gonzalez referred repeatedly to his support for the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” a question that may appear on the November ballot, which would raise taxes on incomes above $1 million a year.
If the Supreme Judicial Court knocks the question off the ballot – a decision on that is expected any day – or if it is allowed but voters reject the measure, Gonzalez said he would explore “another progressive way to raise the income we need.”
On the opioid crisis facing the state, Massie and Gonzalez both differed with Baker on two issues. Both said they favored supervised injection sites where intravenous drug users could inject themselves with medical care nearby, something Baker has said he is skeptical of. “There is a lot of evidence from places around the world that have done this that shows it reduces addiction,” said Gonzalez. “We’re not going to be able to get people into treatment and recovery if they don’t live.”
They both said they opposed the governor’s proposal, now pending on Beacon Hill, to allow medical providers to obtain orders to involuntary hold drug addicts for 72 hours if they are deemed to be at imminent risk to themselves.
He and Gonzalez both said the main problem is a lack of adequate treatment services.
Gonzalez criticized Baker’s progress in addressing problems with the MBTA, saying the governor has laid out a 15-year plan that will take too long to fix shortcomings in the system. He said he would “fire” the regional rail operator, Keolis, and put operation of the commuter rail under direct MBTA oversight.
Although he favors eliminating all mandatory minimum sentences except for that for first-degree murder, Gonzalez said he nonetheless would have signed the big criminal justice bill passed last month by the Legislature, despite its inclusion of new mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl and carfentanil.
“While this legislation is not perfect from my perspective, it takes a huge step forward in addressing what I believe is the civil rights issue of our time, and that is our broken criminal justice system,” he said.
On some topics, the candidates were short on specifics or skirted the question entirely.
More housing production is universally seen as part of the answer to soaring home prices and rents in Eastern Massachusetts. Asked about Baker’s recent vow to have 135,000 new housing units built over eight years by providing incentives for zoning changes, neither candidate offered a specific alternate plan.
The state needs “real regulatory reform,” said Gonzalez, “not what Charlie Baker did — reform that is actually going to result, while balancing local interests, in the production of additional affordable housing.”
Massie said markets “left to themselves” don’t work, and pointed to land trusts, cooperatives, co-housing, and other models that he said can address housing needs.
He also said cities need to find a way to “bring back things like triple-deckers.” He said owning a three-unit house in which two apartments are rented out was a time-honored way of building equity. He said that path to equity has been “cut off” by the splitting of three-deckers into condos, a comment that seemed to overlook the fact that such changes result in three owners building equity.
Asked whether there were efficiencies or ways state colleges and universities could control costs, neither candidate addressed the issue. Massie did, however, float an idea for helping struggling campuses that would surely stir controversy. He suggested that private colleges and universities with “immense, immense endowments have a role to play in supporting others in the state.”
While they lined up nearly identically on issues, the candidates evinced different styles during two sets of “lightning round” questions.
Asked where they most enjoy a meal, Gonzalez took the safer path: “At home with my family,” he said. Massie named a homey Italian restaurant in East Somerville.
When the candidates were asked who they hope is the Democratic president nominee in 2020, Massie said, “I hope Bernie Sanders runs,” an answer that drew loud cheers from the audience. Gonzalez was not ready to suggest a flag-bearer for the party, saying he looked forward to helping whoever the nominee is defeat Trump.
Baker enjoys a wide lead in polls, and he has a massive fundraising advantage. The most recent reports show Baker with $8 million on hand, compared with $144,000 for Gonzalez, and Massie with just $18,000.
In a late March WBUR poll, Baker had leads of more than 35 points in match-ups against Gonzalez or Massie. A third Democrat in the race, former Newton mayor Setti Warren, dropped out last month, citing the challenge of raising campaign funds.
With the Democratic contest down to two candidates, some expected Thursday’s debate to feature an exchange of sharp jabs between the rivals jockeying for the Democratic nomination. But there was nothing resembling Ali versus Frazier, as the forum proved more vanilla than thrilla on that front.
It took a push from Chakrabarti at the end to even get the candidates to tiptoe into that area and spell out how they differ from each other.
Gonzalez said with his background in “getting big things done” in government, “I’m best positioned to deliver on the type of ambitious progressive agenda the state needs.” He also said with his ability to point out what he said were Baker’s management “failures,” he’s in the best position to beat the popular governor in November.
Gonzalez also acknowledged that not everything went smoothly in his time state government.
‘There were areas where the Patrick administration was not successful because we didn’t work as effectively as we could have with the Legislature,” he said after the debate, pointing to a big tax bill that “landed with a thud.” He those are lessons he would take into the governor’s office if elected.
Baker and Gonzalez both served as state budget chiefs as CEOs of health care insurers.
Massie acknowledged that he hasn’t worked in state government, but suggested it was more of an asset than limitation, saying he has a breadth of experience in the nonprofit and social entrepreneur world that gives him a “much bigger tool kit than anybody who is normally running for governor.”Calling himself a “movement leader” who has been a “lifelong economic justice, racial justice, gender justice activist,” Massie said, alluding to Gonzalez’s background, it won’t be enough to claim a better track record than Baker in similar roles.
“I don’t think that’s going to move anybody,” he said. “What people want is a fresh start, a fresh voice.”