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Democrats' First Gubernatorial Debate Shows Many Similarities Between The Candidates05:21
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Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jay Gonzalez, left, and Bob Massie during a debate at UMass Boston (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jay Gonzalez, left, and Bob Massie during a debate at UMass Boston (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The two Democrats vying to unseat Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker faced off Thursday in a debate hosted by WBUR, the Boston Globe and UMass Boston.

Environmental activist Bob Massie and Jay Gonzalez, former state budget chief under Deval Patrick, took questions on the economy, transportation, education and the opioid crisis. The two agreed with each other more than they disagreed, and while they directed one or two jabs at each other, they focused their strongest attacks on the Republican governor they hope to replace.

The two self-described progressives agree on most issues — especially on what Baker is doing wrong. And they both sought to tie the governor to Donald Trump.

"With President Trump taking us backwards, it’s more important than ever that Massachusetts lead," said Gonzalez. “But we’re not leading under Charlie Baker. He's a status quo, wait-and-see governor. And it's not good enough. We need a governor who is going to see the way the world should be, and take us to that place. Let’s aim high."

Gonzalez's agenda includes spending more on transportation, a commitment to affordable childcare and preschool, and a single-payer health care system.

For his part, Massie talks about big challenges — about what he calls “an upside down economy” that leaves too many people behind. And about big solutions, like building a green economy. Massie ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1994 and describes himself as a “movement leader.”

“And I believe that we need to take on the problems today that are going to pay benefits tomorrow. We stand at a critical moment — with a president who is getting ready to destroy our democracy and a governor who is not willing to object," he said.

Baker did not vote for Trump, but both Massie and Gonzalez have accused him of being too soft on his criticism of the president. It’s one way they hope to chip away at Baker’s popularity.

The most recent WBUR poll, conducted in March, found that 66 percent of Massachusetts voters view the governor favorably; only 14 percent unfavorably.

But that same poll found most voters less than impressed with the governor’s record on particular policies, such as reducing health care costs, addressing the opioid crisis and the high cost of housing.

Thursday's debate was a chance for the two Democrats to dig into some of those policy specifics. On the opioid crisis, for example, they both accused Baker of doing too little.

“This is a great example of someone who came in and said this would be a priority, and he has not moved forward adequately," said Massie.

Massie says, among other things, he'd spend more on treatment. So would Gonzalez, who also favors a controversial idea of safe injection centers for addicts, which he says have proven effective in other parts of the world.

“We’re not going to be able to get people into treatment and recovery if they don't live. So we have to try some new things. We have to be aggressive in taking on this epidemic in our state," said Gonzalez.

Both Gonzalez and Massie accuse the governor of lacking a big vision, and criticize him for being unwilling to make big investments in things like transportation.

“We know that we are starting to fall behind. I'd like to buy Charlie a ticket to some part of the world which is competing with us, where they have built a modern high-speed rail system that we could have over the next 10 years, if we committed to it, if we had the leadership," said Massie.

To pay for this kind of investment, both Democrats support the so-called millionaire's tax on the state’s highest earners. Gonzalez says raising taxes is the only way to build a transportation system for the future and to finally fix the MBTA.

“We gotta be honest about this. Charlie Baker is not being honest with people. To pretend that we don't need more money for transportation is going to result in this system that is not working for people, that affects people's quality of life in a very real way, and is going to continue to drag Massachusetts backwards," said Gonzalez.

The two Democrats see a state where the glass is half empty -- while the man they’re seeking to unseat sees it as half full. They want a big vision and big programs, while Baker touts a strong economy and not raising taxes.

The only disagreement between Gonzalez and Massie was about who is best positioned to challenge Baker. Gonzalez says he’s the guy, because he has the right experience.

“I’m the only one of the two of us that has leadership experience in state government, getting big things done ... I've been there, I've done it, I know how the process works," said Gonzalez.

For his part, Massie suggested his fellow Democrat was too much like Baker — a government insider, who would just bring more of the same. He cast himself as the outsider.

“It’s true, that I haven’t spent time in the state government," he said. "I've been busy making change on the environment, on our economics, on fighting corporate power, on fighting for economic justice, and fighting for racial justice. That's my entire life, and I am proud of the work that I’ve done.”

It’s not clear if Thursday’s debate will move the needle in the governor’s race. But for the two Democrats, who’ve been struggling for traction in their quest to challenge the nation’s most popular governor, it was their best opportunity yet for some much-needed visibility.

This segment aired on May 18, 2018.

Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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