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At Democratic Gubernatorial Forum, The Race Kicks Off

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — There are five Democrats vying to be governor of Massachusetts. Tuesday night they were all on stage at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics for one of the first forums of the campaign.

They talked jobs, health care and education, but they were also introducing themselves.

The First Forum

The race for governor is really just a couple of months old. And if the polls tell us anything, you don’t know much about who’s running.

The five talked jobs, health care and education, but they were also introducing themselves.

A WBUR survey from last month found most voters are familiar with one of the candidates — Attorney General Martha Coakley. The other four Democrats? Not so much.

So the most important part of the forum Tuesday may have been the introductions.

Coakley pitched herself as the candidate of economic fairness.

“It’s a time when we need to move the state forward to be both prosperous and fair,” she said. “I think it’s crucial that we do both those things — that we turn this economy around for everybody, not just people at the top.”

Treasurer Steve Grossman sounded a similar theme.

“We have a responsibility in this wonderful state of ours to make sure that we leave no one behind,” he said.

Homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem said Democrats, in particular, have an obligation to make government work better.

“I believe in government’s capacity to do good,” she said. “And as Democrats we have to say that every day. I also believe it can always do better.”

Former Obama administration health care official Donald Berwick? He wants to be the liberal in the race. And he trotted out a prominent conservative to make the point.

“Glenn Beck called me the second most dangerous man in America,” he said.

The fifth candidate, biopharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone, pitched himself as the moderate businessman with progressive ideas.

“We have to do something very bold about the environment,” he said. “It’s a ticking time bomb. I was the first candidate to propose a carbon tax.”

So, got all that? Don’t worry. The test isn’t until the Democratic primary in September. And some of these candidates may not even make the ballot. But in the meantime, they’re promising a pretty aggressive agenda.

Aggressive Agendas

Berwick, who was once a pediatrician, told the story of a teenager he treated years ago for leukemia.

“I fought hard for him,” he said. “I did everything I could for him. Ten years later he died on the streets. Cured his leukemia. Killed by poverty, by racism, by injustice. It’s not good enough.”

Berwick said he’d go into any town that asked and provide a comprehensive suite of services to keep kids safe and healthy.

Several candidates talked about better technology in the schools and improved mental health services. Universal preschool is especially popular with this crowd.

“We have 25,000 3- and 4-year-olds on a waiting list for pre-K,” Grossman said. “We think of ourselves as No. 1 in public education and we have 25,000 kids on a waiting list? That’s unacceptable.”

So with all of these plans, the last question — from a college student in the audience — was probably the best: How are you going to pay for all of this?

Three of the candidates — Grossman, Kayyem and Berwick — suggested they’d push for tax hikes if necessary.

“I don’t like it when Republicans make no-tax pledges; I don’t like it when Democrats make no-tax pledges,” Kayyem said. “We have to have a conversation. Taxes are a way to generate revenue in hard times.”

Avellone said curbing health care costs could free up hundreds of millions. No new taxes required. Coakley, who is leading in the early polls, made a more general appeal to cutting waste in government.

“I think we waste a lot of money in this state,” she said. “I see it. And so you start there.”

You gotta start somewhere.

And for voters just tuning into the race, a lively little forum at Harvard University was as good a place as any.

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