The three Republican candidates seeking their party’s nomination in the Massachusetts special U.S. Senate race to fill John Kerry’s seat met Wednesday night for a debate, showing little restraint in attacking each other's positions and even character.
Much of the debate was driven by disputes between former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and state Rep. Daniel Winslow over policies ranging from the prudence of budgets submitted by former Gov. Mitt Romney when Winslow was his legal counsel, to the best way to handle the national budget. And each lawyer accused the other of having worked as a lobbyist.
"Interestingly, Dan, you are a lobbyist." Sullivan said. "You gave money to Martha Coakley, actually maxed out to Martha Coakley, the deputy attorney general, and when asked about it he says it's because I'm doing business with her. The wrong reason, I think, for people to give money to public officials is because they have business with them."
Winslow accused Sullivan of working for the gun lobby.
"Mike represented a special interest before a foreign government," Winslow said. "In today's Springfield [Republican] newspaper he was described by his client as saying Mike talks to law enforcement about the foundations — his client's programs — and talks to ATF officials about the industry's interest in regulatory policy. If that's not a lobbyist, what's your definition of lobbyist?"
The tension grew when Winslow said he would vote for a bipartisan proposal that emerged on Capitol Hill Wednesday that would close the so-called gun show loophole by expanding background checks. He pressed Sullivan for his position.
"How would you vote in the compromise?" Winslow asked.
"It doesn't address the problem," Sullivan said. "I'm not going to do something just because it feels good."
"So you'd be voting no, you'd vote no," Winslow responded.
The third candidate, Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez, jumped in to criticize both men.
"This is exactly what happens when politicians don't answer the question," he said.
Gomez said he supports the compromise gun control measure but criticized Winslow and Sullivan as career politicians again and again, while emphasizing his Navy and business career, and lack of previous political experience.
"This is what happens when you've got people in who have been in politics since 1990," Gomez said. "They resort to mudslinging and they resort to personal attacks. One of us is going to be senator, I am confident of that, and the people of Massachusetts do not want their senator acting this way."
But as Gomez tried to position himself as an outsider who could be trusted, both Winslow and Sullivan turned their fire on him over a letter he wrote to Gov. Deval Patrick two months ago. Gomez was seeking the interim appointment to the Senate seat Kerry vacated and in the letter he voiced support of President Obama's immigration and gun control policies. Sullivan was the first to take aim.
"And now he runs and all of a sudden he distances himself from President Obama's position on gun control, which is rather extreme, and immigration, which provides amnesty for illegal immigrants," Sullivan said.
"The governor had a unique opportunity to reach across the aisle and appoint a Republican," Gomez said. "A Republican who's willing to go down there and do the work for the people of Massachusetts. I'm a Navy guy, I raised my hand and I volunteered."
But that didn't get him off the hook. Winslow piled on and accused Gomez of talking from both sides of his mouth.
The round robin invective continued through the hour. Only in the last minutes did the stage grow calmer as each candidate went over his personal biography.
A recent WBUR poll found Sullivan held a lead in the GOP race, but with many voters still undecided. The primary is set for April 30. Two Democratic congressmen, Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey, are seeking their party’s nomination.
This post was updated with Morning Edition feature content.
This article was originally published on April 11, 2013.