BOSTON — Less than a month before Primary Day in Massachusetts, the two Republican candidates for governor met at WBUR Wednesday morning to face off in their first head-to-head debate of the campaign season (watch or listen to the debate here).
Tea Party-aligned candidate Mark Fisher blasted the state’s new gun law and argued for the elimination of targeted industry tax credits. His conservative positions veered far to the right, making the man sitting to his left, front-runner Charlie Baker, come across as a moderate.
The two Republican men — in their mid-50s, with MBAs, wearing similarly colored suits — did not agree on much. Baker said he would not vote in favor of repealing the casino law, while Fisher said he hopes the repeal passes. And when Baker said he would be “working the phones” behind the scenes to solve the crisis at the Market Basket supermarket chain, Fisher reiterated his belief that government should not interfere in private business.
Fisher said he does not believe in government tax credits or policies that favor a particularly troubled local community.
“People who are in these boats that float on the rising tide at some point have to raise the anchor, set the sail, and take helm,” he said. “I’m not going to cater to individuals, to specific industries, or to regions, or certain populations, like immigrants.”
Baker offered a more nuanced response. He said he understands why tax credits are occasionally needed, especially in research and development, and he cautioned that it would be unwise to repeatedly change tax policy because employers need stability.
Baker’s responses often challenged the status quo, but operated within the existing structure of Massachusetts politics. He criticized the Patrick administration’s handling of health care.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why the Patrick administration and the Health Connector broke what was working here,” Baker said, referring to costly website woes when the state implemented changes associated with the Affordable Care Act. “We had a system that worked, we had a Health Connector that worked, we had an exchange that worked.”
Fisher, on the other hand, freely condemned the entire existing institution.
“I don’t like the idea of government being involved in health care at all,” he said when asked about health care reform in the state and what he would like to improve. “I believe these are one of the things that fall under our pursuit of happiness as individuals.”
The two also diverged on guns. Baker said he would have signed the legislation Gov. Deval Patrick signed Wednesday, while lauding the compromise reached by the Legislature on firearms identification cards for long guns. Fisher said he would have killed the bill.
(When asked if they are gun owners, Fisher said he once built a shotgun, but has since sold it. Baker said he doesn’t own a gun, that he “never needed to” own one.)
The debate highlighted the sharp ideological differences between these two Republicans, but they found a few moments of consensus. They agreed most visibly on charter schools.
“I think it’s a disgrace and a shame that the Legislature voted down increasing the cap on charter schools,” Baker said. “For many kids and many families, [a charter school is] one of the biggest and most significant opportunities they’ve got to improve their status in life.”
Fisher said he “absolutely” agrees the state needs more charter schools.
“It gives parents more choice for the education of their children and it increases competition among the existing schools,” he said.
Fisher and Baker also echoed one another when taking shots at the Patrick administration.
Baker said implementation of medical marijuana dispensaries has been a “disaster from start to finish.” “If I have the ability [as governor] to reboot it, I absolutely will,” he said.
Throughout the one-hour debate, Baker, who is polling well ahead of Fisher, seemed to be speaking beyond the Sept. 9 GOP primary.
“I believe that when you have one team on the field, and there’s no check and balance on Beacon Hill, which is how it works now, a lot of bad behavior is ultimately the result of that,” he said, when asked about patronage and the recently completed trial on hiring practices at the state Probation Department.
Even while he criticized the longevity of one-power rule in the state, Baker joked that one of his greatest liabilities is perhaps running as a Republican for governor in Massachusetts.
After the debate, Fisher was quick to mock Baker, saying he had previously labeled his opponent as “Democrat light,” but in reality Baker is “Democrat strong.”
“He lines up with [Patrick] on health care being a right, climate change, income inequality, government involvement with minimum wage … illegal immigration now,” Fisher said.
Fisher said it has become standard practice for Republicans to water down their message because they feel the state is owned by Democrats.
“I have the opposite approach,” he said. “I say the Democrats own the state, that means they own all the problems. What a great time to run as a Republican and win.”
This post was updated with the post-debate recap.