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WATCH: Democratic hopefuls in Mass. lieutenant governor primary face off60:00
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The Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, state Rep. Tami Gouveia and state Sen. Eric Lesser, at a primary debate at WBUR's CitySpace. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts — Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, state Rep. Tami Gouveia and state Sen. Eric Lesser — at a primary debate at WBUR's CitySpace. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The three Democratic candidates for Massachusetts lieutenant governor gathered Tuesday at 11 a.m. for an hour-long debate ahead of the Sept. 6 primary.

Kim Driscoll, Tami Gouveia and Eric Lesser are vying to become the 73rd lieutenant governor of the commonwealth. Incumbent Karyn Polito decided she would not seek reelection. The vacancy spurred one of the most crowded statewide races this year.

Driscoll served as mayor of Salem for five terms. Gouveia, of Acton, is currently the state representative for the 14th Middlesex District. Lesser, a four-term Massachusetts senator representing his hometown of Longmeadow, has long backed plans for a high-speed rail service connecting eastern and western Massachusetts.

This is the last in a series of five debates hosted by WBUR, WCVB Channel 5 and The Boston Globe designed to inform voters of key statewide races. The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor held their debate Monday.

Tuesday's debate was moderated by Steve Brown, WBUR senior State House reporter; Sharman Sacchetti, WCVB award-winning political reporter; and Taylor Dolven, transportation reporter at The Boston Globe

Watch the debate below.

Debate highlights

Opening statements

Driscoll: "I've been fortunate to be the mayor in Salem for the last 16 years and excited about the opportunity to serve as your next lieutenant governor. As mayor, I've helped make Salem a hip, historic, vibrant destination for visitors and residents alike.

"Mayors like me have been on the ground through some of our most tough challenges: COVID response and recovery, addressing racial equity issues, working through the climate crisis, strengthening our public schools, and making housing more affordable. These aren't just talking points for me. They're issues I work on every single day.

"When you're a mayor, there's no hiding. You've got to get stuff done every single day. I want to bring that 'get stuff done' perspective to the state house to partner with our next governor. It's the type of executive experience, sense of urgency and accountability, that we need.

"I'm ready to get to work — not just work for my hometown, but work for yours ..."

Lesser: "I love Massachusetts like I think all of us do, but it's becoming increasingly hard to live here: the cost of child care, housing, rent. We see what's happening with the T, with transportation.

"My time in the state senate and my experience working with President Obama has taught me that it takes big solutions to solve big problems. That's why I've championed transportation access my entire time in the state senate and why I've worked so hard to connect our state by east-west rail and to work to invest in and fix the T.

"I also have a history of working closely with Attorney General Maura Healey, and I think I'll be the right person to be her lieutenant when she's governor ..."

Gouveia: "I believe that we need leaders in the corner office who are putting our health, well-being and dignity at the center of decision-making. I've been a social worker for 25 years. I'm a doctor of public health. I've been a state representative for the last several years.

"And what I've seen in those roles, as well as in my own personal experience, having grown up in the city of Lowell and having lived for the last 14 years as a single mom, is how so often, in bureaucratic government decision-making, we are leaving far too many people behind. I have stood with our working families. I have stood with our LGBTQ community. And I've stood up for racial justice. That's the kind of lieutenant governor I will be."

On what they bring to the job

Lesser: "Housing, transportation, climate; those are the urgent issues in front of us. And I think I have unique attributes and experience to help deliver on those priorities.

"I'm the only candidate in this race with high-level federal experience. We see the role the federal government is now playing with the MBTA safety issues. We have $9 billion in federal infrastructure money coming from the Biden infrastructure plan alone. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, [Richard] Neal, has said I'm the person to work with the next governor to help secure those federal funds. I'm also the only candidate from outside of I-495, and it's important to have a perspective of our entire state, including bringing the perspective of some of our underserved regions."

Driscoll: "As someone who's been a mayor on the ground, I've enjoyed the opportunity to work directly on solving problems. As mayor, the buck stops with you; you've got to pass budgets, you've got to deliver for people every single day.

"I feel fortunate to have a broad cross-section of support throughout the commonwealth — every single corner of this commonwealth — local officials, state officials who are standing up and see me as the best executive and innovative leader to work with our next governor to implementing solutions.

"In January, we own the housing crisis. We own the transportation wars. We own the need to have more child care. That's the work I've been doing. I think I'll be a strong partner to Gov. Healey."

Gouveia: "I've been in this race for the last 14 months and so really have crisscrossed the state and have a deep understanding of the issues and the suffering that so many hardworking families are facing every day. So that's why I'm talking about the child care crisis and the mental health crisis. If we don't invest in human services and mental health care and child care, we will not be able to get our economy on track and keep it on track. That is the way that I will complement the role that Gov. Healey will play, [by] being a different type of lieutenant governor. I think voters should be demanding more from the role of lieutenant governor as its own constitutional office ..."

On what grade they would give the MBTA

Gouveia: "A D. It's crashing and burning. We haven't had enough of the kind of oversight that voters and residents in our state really deserve and should be demanding. And we haven't made the investments that we've really needed to keep up with the state of repair. It's unsafe, it's unreliable, and it's putting people's lives at risk and causing major inconveniences with these impending closures."

Driscoll: "Yeah, the T is definitely not passing right now. We need a public transportation system that's safe, affordable, reliable, convenient. And that's certainly not what's happening at the T — or frankly, any of our public transit systems.

"Not only do we need investment, but we need the type of experienced leadership that is investing in both the operations and the capital to make an organization like that work. That's what's going to be necessary as we move forward."

Lesser: "I think the MBTA has an F right now. It's literally setting on fire."

On whether they support the shutdown of the Orange line

Gouveia: "Yeah, I mean, we have to for safety reasons. I'm grateful that Mayor [Michelle] Wu has stepped up, and other folks are stepping up, to offer shuttle services and other opportunities for people to get around. But, I find it discouraging and disheartening that also the message is, 'Well, just avoid the city of Boston.' This is our economy.' Folks rely on people showing up to their local coffee shop or shopping in the downtown businesses. So, it's concerning from a bigger perspective."

Lesser: "We have to get the service back to some level of acceptability. The 30 day shutdown, I hope works. We need to go farther than that. And in a Healey-Lesser administration, I'm going to prioritize safety working with Governor Healey. We're going to work to change the culture by putting in place a Bill of Rights for passengers and putting in place a refund program. Believe it or not, there was no refund."

Driscoll: "I think the challenge we have is crisis planning. This is not how to run a railroad — literally. You want to be able to make those capital investments that are planned, so people are aware of it. When you have to have those shutdowns, you have the opportunity to make sure people have a look-ahead and can make the sorts of planning they need to to get to where they need to go. This is a vital transportation system — work, school, medical appointments — that we're shutting down with very little notice. That's to be avoided."

On the ballot initiative to repeal the law allowing undocumented residents to obtain driver's licenses

Driscoll: "I'm a strong supporter of the law. I've been an advocate for it since day one, several years ago when it was first proposed. We know a number of community members in Salem are immigrants, are undocumented, and we want to make sure they can get to school, to work, to driver's appointments, to the grocery store. If you're not for this law because of moral issues, I hope you support it for basic public safety. Having licensed drivers, folks who are registered and insured, is a plus for our community.

"If this were to be overturned, I would be a strong advocate to stand up and make sure that we're moving forward in a way that allows undocumented residents a license, and hopefully be in a position to beat back any sort of question on the ballot by showcasing [that] immigrants are part of our neighbors and friends are a part of all of our communities. This is a perfect common sense tool, in my perspective."

Lesser: "I was an original co-sponsor of that legislation. As the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, I would work to defeat that ballot initiative ... If it is successful, I would work to try to change it ...

"This is very important in terms of equity. People need to be able to get to doctors appointments, to work. People need to be able to move around. The other piece that's important to reinforce is in states where this has been passed, it's actually reduced traffic accidents, it's reduced hit and runs because it contributes to people being safe on the roads — taking the driver's tests, getting the licenses and being part of the education that goes into getting a license. So [I'm a] strong supporter. I'll be working to defeat that ballot initiative."

Gouveia: "I have been a supporter of the Family Mobility Act for all the reasons laid out, and it's better for public safety. It's a humane way to treat our hardworking immigrant residents and neighbors, including undocumented, because they contribute to the strength of our economy every single day. Working in our nursing homes, working as cleaners in our office buildings, working as landscapers, and just making the fundamental contributions that we really rely on in the states ...

"One of the things that folks on the GOP side are fighting back against, even though this legislation does poll well, is that there are concerns around folks going and voting illegally. That is not going to happen. The secretary of the commonwealth has come out and said protections can be put in place."

On whether Beacon Hill lawmakers should reconvene to work on the $4.5 billion economic development bill still in committee

Lesser: "This is a no-brainer. Absolutely, we have to reconvene. We have no choice but to reconvene. People are relying on that aid. That package also includes vital aid to our hospitals, support for the home health care workforce, support for child care workers, as well as the tax package."

Gouveia: "I believe we need to come back ... There's a lot of tax relief that our hardworking folks are really relying on us to get done. In that economic development package, there was relief for renters, relief for seniors and also for those with dependent care. So we have to get back into session after that auditor's report comes out."

Driscoll: "Yeah, super disappointing to to find that we don't have funding for affordable housing for small businesses for some of the tax revenue that we know people in communities are relying on. As a mayor, it's really insulting, quite frankly. People are hurting right now. And these are programs that would help; not only the tax relief, but the innovative dollars coming back to us. And I think it's embarrassing that we didn't get it done at a time when we know folks on the ground need that assistance desperately."

Closing statements

Driscoll: I'm really excited about the opportunity to take the know-how, the sense of urgency and the work that you do in local government to the State House. When you're a mayor, there's no hiding. There's direct accountability. You're tasked with making decisions for neighbors and friends and people you're going to see the next day. It makes you a better listener. It makes you more accountable, and it gives you a sense of urgency.

"I want to take that experience to tackle some of the biggest challenges our commonwealth is facing rolling up my sleeves, working in concert with our next governor, Maura Healey, to make sure we're impacting the quality of life in the places people live.

"As a mayor, I know what it's like on the ground. I have the relationships, a broad cross-section of support not only from local leaders, but from labor, from Planned Parenthood. I think I can bring the degree of experience and get stuff done mentality to the State House and look forward and humbly ask for your vote on Sept. 6 in the suit tenant governor's race."

Gouveia: There are real differences in this race. I have the endorsement of the [Massachusetts] Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers because of the ways that I have stood up for our teachers, for our students, making sure that as we got back into the classroom that folks were safe.

"There are real differences when it comes to the kind of progressive that I'm running and having a vision for the role that the lieutenant governor can play and ought to play, that we should be demanding that this constitutional office plays, in getting to the root causes of the problems that we are facing every single day."

Lesser: "Voters are going to have an important choice coming up, which is the executive team that they want to put together — the person they want is the lieutenant to Gov. Healey.

"I think I've got a unique set of experiences. I'm the only person with high level federal experience. I'm the only person from west of I-495, giving that perspective of western Massachusetts and our and our outlying regions of our state. And the only person that's really centered transportation at the heart of my campaign. We are going to work to implement high speed west-east rail, from Pittsfield through Springfield through Worcester to Boston. We're going to work on the safety issues at the T and we're going to expand rail service and invest in our infrastructure across our state."

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