State House News Service

Under Fire From Grossman, Coakley Hopes For ‘Positive Primary’

BOSTON — Having made a series of critiques on his opponent Martha Coakley’s varying statements on the death penalty and other criminal justice matters, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steven Grossman suggested she had shifted positions for political reasons.

“We all change positions from time to time, and I accept that fact that people evolve. All of us evolve, but not on virtually every position in a period of a few years. That begins to become a pattern,” Grossman told the News Service after a caucus in Roxbury Thursday night.

Grossman, the state treasurer, highlighted Coakley’s shift toward favoring in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, opposing the death penalty, and accused her of only recently coming out against “three strikes” sentencing laws.

“If she hadn’t clearly changed her position on a number of issues, I wouldn’t have brought it up. I didn’t go looking for these, but when I saw her, the statement, the comment on three strikes, I said, ‘Well, wait a second, she’s been absolutely for three strikes. She’s absolutely been for mandatory minimums.’ These are positions she took as attorney general. I accept that those were principled positions when she took them,” Grossman said. “But if they were principled positions when she took them as attorney general, how do you demonstrate principle when you’re prepared to deviate from those positions during a campaign, for what appear to be purely political reasons.”

Coakley’s campaign has declined multiple requests for interviews on the subject, and the candidate, reached at a caucus in Somerville Saturday morning, said she is focused on her own campaign.

“We’re running our own race, and I’m really focused on what our message is. I can’t account for what other candidates do, but I’m hopeful that this will continue to be a good, positive primary, and I think that’s what Democrats want,” Coakley said.

Asked to respond to Grossman’s accusation of a “pattern” of shifting positions, Coakley said, “I am consistent in my approach to keeping kids safe, making sure we keep improving. I stand by my record on that, and I think people want to hear positive things in this race.”

While Coakley said she is focused on her race, her campaign spokesman Kyle Sullivan volleyed back at Grossman, saying in a statement the candidate’s rhetoric is contributing to a “toxic” atmosphere.

“It’s surprising that Steve Grossman would resort to increasingly negative and false attacks that mirror the toxic political atmosphere in Washington,” Sullivan said in a statement Saturday. “It is obviously very calculated as Grossman, a former national party chair, is taking a page out of the insider Washington playbook by misrepresenting Martha’s record and then attacking her for his own political gain. Martha is running a grassroots campaign focused on lifting people up, while it’s increasingly clear that Grossman is content spending his time trying to tear down fellow Democrats.”

Grossman’s campaign released a nine-page research document mapping out Coakley’s various statements on “three strikes” sentencing and the death penalty. After Sullivan defended Coakley, and said Grossman was incorrect about Coakley’s stance towards “three strikes” laws, the Grossman campaign followed up with documentation showing Coakley had previously publicly defended the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing.

“It begins to create a pattern of flip-flopping and a pattern of failure to stick with clearly defined principles,” said Grossman, arguing voters want a candidate who sticks to principles. He said he was reminded of a quote by President Harry Truman: “I don’t give them Hell, I just tell the truth and they think it’s Hell.”

The attorney general since 2006, Coakley has had a consistent far-and-away lead in opinion polls. An unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s former seat in 2010, Coakley received barbs for her performance in that race, which has also helped raise her profile; she has the highest name recognition of any candidate.

A career prosecutor, Coakley’s prior statements on criminal justice matters have proved a rich source of material for Grossman, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who first won statewide office in 2010. Coakley’s career has also brought her up against powerful pols.

The attorney general levied a campaign finance violation fine against Lt. Gov. Tim Murray – a onetime potential candidate for governor – and prosecuted 2010 independent gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill, which ended in a mistrial and a fine. Cahill’s wife Tina has been critical of Coakley on social media.

Grossman has acknowledged he was unclear about his stance on in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants in 2010, though he maintains he has supported the policy since 2006. Coakley has shifted her stance from opposing to now supporting the in-state rates for undocumented immigrants.

The three other Democratic candidates – none of whom hold elected office – mostly steered clear of the fracas between the two more well known contenders.

Juliette Kayyem, a former homeland security advisor and Boston Globe columnist, has focused much of her rhetoric on decreasing the prison population, preparing the state for climate change and other matters and helping veterans, while her campaign has been focused on receiving the delegates’ support she will need to appear on the September primary ballot.

“I honestly believe that if I’m on the ballot, then the dynamics change, and then it’s a generational shift. I represent a different kind of leadership and people can decide,” Kayyem said. “Right now that just seems like the kind of politics that is not going to get people excited about the race.”

Don Berwick, the former acting chief of Medicare and Medicaid, has come out in favor of a Medicare-for-all health care system, supports repeal of the 2011 gaming law that legalized casinos, and has sought the mantle of the most progressive candidate in the field.

“I’m feeling a tremendous resonance with a progressive agenda,” Berwick told the News Service. He said, “I’m not going to comment on the other candidates.”

Former surgeon and health care executive Joe Avellone, who is a Wellesley resident, said he has built bases of support in Brockton, Quincy and Worcester – which he has visited 50 times.

“I really think I am the moderate in the race,” Avellone told the News Service, declining to weigh in on the dispute between the Coakley and Grossman camps. He said, “There’s a lot of moderates, and I think they would like to see the party move a bit back to the center, and that’s what I’m finding where we’re finding success.”

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