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The candidates running for Massachusetts governor toughened their rhetoric Tuesday during their first Boston televised debate with Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley battling over health care issues and how best to overhaul the state's child welfare agency.
Coakley again criticized an ad by a pro-Baker super PAC that claimed she opposed reforms in the Department of Children and Families. Baker said no one was questioning Coakley's work as a child advocate, but he faulted her for fighting a lawsuit that sought to make changes to the agency.
Coakley also criticized Baker's rising salary when he was CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Coakley said Baker's salary shot up even as 3,500 seniors were left off health plans and premium costs tripled.
"At a not-for-profit your salary went from over $600,000 to over $1.7 million," Coakley said during the debate at WBZ-TV. "How do you explain that to people whose premiums went up, who lost their care?"
Baker, who was brought in to help stabilize the health care giant's finances, defended his work, arguing that if Harvard Pilgrim had collapsed "thousands of people in Massachusetts would have lost their jobs and a whole series of very important health care institutions would have gone away."
He also said his salary was up to the Harvard Pilgrim board.
"It was not something I spent a lot of time frankly negotiating with the board, and I'm so proud of the work we did to save that organization," he said.
The two also debated improvements to the state's child welfare department.
Coakley criticized a decision by Baker when he was health and human services secretary for former Gov. William Weld to return about $2 million to the state's general fund after the Legislature had appropriated money for the agency, then known as the Department of Social Service.
Baker said the state added hundreds of social workers, and criticized Coakley for defending the state against a 2010 lawsuit filed by a child welfare group that charged DCF was violating the constitutional rights of foster children.
Baker said that instead of litigating, he would have worked to fix the problems.
Coakley defended her handling of the lawsuit, saying she was doing what was in the interest of the state.
During the exchange, Baker also offered Coakley an olive branch.
"No one is questioning your work as a child advocate across your long and distinguished career," Baker said.
Independent candidates Evan Falchuk, Scott Lively, and Jeff McCormick also participated in the hour-long debate. Polls have shown Baker and Coakley locked in a dead heat with Falchuk, Lively and McCormick in the low single digits.
The debate also touched on health care issues and the botched website the state launched last year to be in compliance with President Barack Obama's health care law.
Baker has said the state should push for a waiver from the law. He said Tuesday that he feared the state was losing control of its own health care law.
"I wanted Massachusetts to continue to be in the driver's seat," he said.
Coakley said the state needed some waivers from the federal government and said the state has the right plan now.
The election is Nov. 4.
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