Gubernatorial debate: time to focus debate where it counts

It may not be politically correct to support the exclusion of Jill Stein from the WTTK gubernatorial debate, as in, who are the media to determine that a candidate doesn’t cross the threshold of credibility. Remembering how soft candidate support often is and Scott Brow’s decisive late surge, it may be slightly illogical to say that she, polling at five percent or lower should be excluded. But she should be. There’s a much stronger case for leaving her out than Tim Cahill, now polling at 18 percent. Thursday’s debate with Cahill, Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker was significantly more focused than the WBZ debate that included Stein.

Margery Eagan and Jim Braude zeroed in on the most important topics, starting with cutting costs on municipal workers’ health insurance, reforming state worker pensions, cutting taxes, eliminating jobs, consolidating agencies. There was nothing new in the candidate responses. The pattern was largely Deval Patrick outlining the significant accomplishments of his administration, acknowledging that more remains to be done, with Charlie Baker scoffing at the accomplishments and promising to go much further. It had a little of the schoolyard feel of “Did so” versus “no you didn’t.” Cahill skated the surface between the two, sometimes agreeing with one, sometimes the other.

Scot Lehigh summed it up best in today’s Boston Globe. None of the candidates was reassuring about how he would deal with an anticipated budget deficit next year of $2 billion to $2 ½ billion.

On the issue of cutting health costs for municipal workers, Cahill got off the best line. Patrick touted how his administration had facilitated access of cities and towns to the state’s group insurance plan, though it requires the nearly insurmountable challenge of getting the support of 70 percent of the unions. Baker would make such participation in the Group Insurance Commission mandatory. Cahill, echoing Patrick’s support for keeping labor at the table (while perhaps lowering the required threshold of labor buy-in), quipped “we’re not electing a dictator; we’re electing a governor.” Baker can’t achieve what he wants with pixie dust. He would still have to go through a union-sensitive legislature to get the powers he needs.

Would anyone take a no new tax pledge? Baker would. Cahill wouldn’t raise taxes for the next four years. Patrick said he has no plans to raise taxes, but would not take the pledge because “I do not believe you govern by gimmick.”

Braude challenged Baker on his fiscal record as a Swampscott selectman, when, Braude said, Baker had voted to raise taxes. Baker said local communities should be the ones to decide on their own taxes. Baker claimed that, under Patrick, the state was “spending rainy day money before it started to rain.” “You’re wrong,” chided Patrick and criticized Baker’s support for early retirement for state workers in the Weld administration, which has cost the state a bundle.

And so it went, whether the issue was casinos, patronage, the “mosque” near Ground Zero.

Both Baker and Cahill are vying for the “mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-any-more” crowd. Patrick presents himself as the voice of reason, practicality and nuance. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the discussion of MCAS and the state’s shift to national “common core” standards with Baker expressing anger almost to the point of shrillness. Cahill repeatedly urged him to “calm down.” Baker said he wouldn’t calm down, that this was one of the worst decision the state has made in years, that “this is one of the most important issues we face as a state.” Patrick said calmly that “The MCAS isn’t going anywhere. We have strengthened it by adding science. The Common Core standards have bipartisan support. If at any time we felt there was a retreat from our highest standards, we would bow out.” Patrick reminded the audience he had doubled the charter school cap and tightened teacher standards. Cahill said simply he would focus on the high achievement gap between wealthy and poor communities.

Asked about the Tea Party, Baker and Cahill said it is good for America. Patrick said civic engagement is right; hate is not a good idea. When it comes to the substantial anti-incumbency sentiment in the body politic, all three gubernatorial candidates are establishment. In fact, incumbent Patrick likes to point out the businessman Baker spent more time on Beacon Hill, as part of the Weld administration, than Patrick himself.

With the two front-runners repeating the “We did this” and “but not enough” refrains, the choice may well come down to which candidate one likes better, whose values overall (not just on an issue-by-issue basis) one feels most comfortable with. But the voters deserve to hear how the candidates would go about implementing their campaign bromides, demonstrating their understanding of the realities of nuts and bolts governing.

Jill Stein has never gone beyond broad brush sloganeering or explained convincingly how she could even begin to do the job. Having been soundly rejected by voters before, she’s not a new candidate who hasn’t had a fair hearing. Given the times we live in, none of the other three has a magic formula for success, but with good debates and tough follow-up questions we have a better chance to make an informed choice.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below or email me at aronsbarron@gmail.com.

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