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Gov. Deval Patrick and Treasurer Timothy Cahill targeted Charles Baker's vaunted business resume on Wednesday during a spirited first debate among the leading Massachusetts gubernatorial contenders.
The candidates clashed over state finances, rising health care costs and a potential crackdown on government benefits for illegal aliens, highlighting likely themes for their fall campaign.
Patrick, the Democratic incumbent, also eagerly used his first face-to-face meeting with his rivals to answer charges they have been leveling from afar during the past year.
In particular, he repeatedly attacked Baker for devising a pivotal financing plan for the cost-plagued Big Dig while the Republican was Weld and Cellucci administration budget chief. He also criticized him for premium growth during the decade he was president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
"You know, Charlie, I have a lot of respect for you, but the notion that you — with your fingerprints all over the Big Dig financing plan — would talk to me about kicking the can," the governor said in exasperation at one point during the hourlong debate. It was sponsored by WRKO-AM and moderated by former House Speaker Thomas Finneran and his "Tom & Todd" co-host, Todd Feinburg.
At another point, Patrick attacked Baker's rosy portrayal of his revival of Harvard Pilgrim, saying: "In fact, what happened while you were there is you raised premiums 150 percent over a 10-year period."
Baker noted Patrick used the same financing mechanism of borrowing against future expected federal money to support his own accelerated road and bridge repair program. And he accused the governor of ignoring efforts to control rising health care costs before it became apparent he was going to run for re-election against a health care executive.
"You guys who control the wheels of the machine were in a better position than I was to actually execute on this," Baker said as he stood beside Patrick and Cahill in a cramped radio station studio.
Cahill, a former Democrat running as an independent, repeatedly interrupted Baker. He said at one point, "If you'd taken some leadership, you could have led the way."
WRKO decided against inviting the fourth candidate who will appear on the November ballot, Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein.
"We respect Jill's interest in the campaign and her point of view. Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate everyone at this time and have chosen to focus on the three major candidates," said Jason Wolfe, the station's program director.
The debate came at an early inflection point in the campaign.
Patrick has rebounded from early lackluster fundraising and polling to open a double-digit lead in the race. Cahill had dropped precipitously in the aftermath of a $1 million negative advertising campaign launched by the Republican Governors Association. The Washington group is concerned he will siphon fiscally conservative votes from Baker.
Baker, meanwhile, has just launched a major TV ad campaign, as he seeks to introduce himself to voters in his first statewide campaign.
He was especially critical of Patrick's budget stewardship during the debate, accusing the governor of tapping the state's $2.4 billion rainy-day fund before necessary, and avoiding fundamental changes in state operations despite falling tax revenues.
Baker labeled the state bureaucracy "the most complicated operating model imaginable."
Cahill embraced an across-the-board budget cut, including in state aid to cities and towns and the state's highly touted universal health care law.
"Casinos and slots are ways to grow revenue, not just cut," Cahill said as he embraced expanded legalized gambling.
Patrick again had a ready retort. He noted three independent bond rating agencies had affirmed the state's AA status.
"In the eight years you stewarded state government, you never achieved a `AA' bond rating," Patrick said to Baker.
The governor was more uncomfortable as the candidates were asked about a recent Senate amendment aimed at ensuring illegal aliens do not receive government benefits.
Patrick said it duplicated existing state and federal law, and he would prefer legislative focus on new areas, such as a gun bill he has proposed.
Noting the deaths of three recent Boston teenagers, Patrick said: "I can't see two or three undocumented people who are getting benefits to which they are not entitled."
Cahill said the crackdown is simply a matter of economics.
"We can talk about the moral issue all we want, but we can't afford to do it," he said of paying unnecessary benefits.
This program aired on June 16, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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