Governor Deval Patrick and his Republican challenger, Charles D. Baker, sparred fiercely Tuesday night in the first televised debate of the race for governor, a lively and policy-rich clash that presented starkly different visions for state government and set the stage for a spirited fall campaign.
Though the hour-long debate, sponsored by WBZ-TV, featured all four candidates, it was essentially a duel between Baker and Patrick, who at times talked over each other as they traded pointed barbs about whether Patrick had been a true reformer and whether Baker's own economic plans offer a responsible alternative.
To Baker, who attacked the incumbent forcefully, Patrick has made a bad economy worse by raising taxes and failing to further shrink state government.
"The best way to grow the economy is to create a climate where businesses that are already here want to grow and expand," Baker said. "And right now they don't have that in Massachusetts."
Patrick, in defending his record, repeatedly sought to remind voters that Baker, a cabinet secretary under Republican governors in the 1990s, had been on Beacon Hill longer than he had, and that many of the problems Baker was citing he himself failed to solve during his tenure.
"We've done more consolidation in this administration than any administration, including the one you served in," Patrick said.
"Name one," Baker fired back.
Patrick said he had consolidated three economic development agencies into one, and he trumpeted the overhaul of pension laws he signed last year, saying, "We're the only ones who actually got it done."
"That was a bunt, when we should be swinging away," Baker said.
"You call it a bunt?" Patrick shot back. "You've never even swung at the ball."
Fighting for air time, both independent Timothy P. Cahill, the state treasurer, and Jill Stein, the Green-Rainbow candidate, tried to define themselves as outsiders, and to characterize the heated exchanges between Baker and Patrick as part of the "bickering" on Beacon Hill that voters resent.
"Unless you have solutions and not just statements about whose fault it is, youíre not going to move forward," Cahill said at one point.
Baker rejected their critique, saying, "I don't think this is bickering. People have a choice in 60 days about whether they think Massachusetts is going in the right direction or not."
The debate, moderated by WBZ political analyst Jon Keller, offered an introduction to the campaign's critical two-month stretch, when many voters will begin paying closer attention. Baker, Cahill, and Patrick met in a radio debate in June. And the trio was joined by Stein last month in a debate that focused on the environment.
Recent polls have shown a tight race between Patrick and Baker, with Cahill struggling to stay viable. A new State House News Service poll showed Patrick leading with 34 percent of those surveyed, Baker in second place with 28 percent, followed by Cahill with 18 percent, and Stein with 4 percent.
Some of the sharpest exchanges came over whether the state's business climate is hospitable. Baker and Patrick cited competing independent ratings of the state's business climate, as Baker accused Patrick of raising taxes eight times and Patrick asserted that the state was on track to regain the jobs it lost in the recession.
Both Cahill and Patrick blamed Baker for the rising costs of health care premiums when he ran Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a major insurer. "Health care costs are the biggest concern for business," Patrick said. "And you've been at the center of that. Youíve raised premiums 150 percent."
Baker said Harvard Pilgrim succeeded with competitive rates, that Patrick came late to the issue, and that state government contributed to the regulations that drive prices higher.
Patrick argued throughout the debate that he had tried to mix spending cuts with tax increases in order to preserve core services during one of the worst downturns since the Great Depression. He cast the race as choice about a "set of values," saying he had made tough decisions to "hold people together."
"We value education, we value health care, we value job creation. And those investments are getting results," he said, pushing back against Bakerís call to reduce the sales, income, and corporate tax rates to 5 percent. "We have much more work to do, but we're moving in the right direction."
Patrick also accused Baker of misleading voters about the true cost of his tax-cut proposals, asserting that they would result in deep cuts in health care, education, and road and bridge repairs.
But Baker highlighted a set of reforms he proposed earlier this year -- on municipal health care, pensions, and state rules that favor unions -- that he said would save between $500 million and $1 billion. Patrick, he said, will leave the next governor with a budget deficit of $2.5 billion because he has failed to bring necessary changes to state government.
"I have more real proposals to cut state spending than either you or the treasurer," Baker said.
Baker was on the defensive during one of the liveliest exchanges of the debate, when the governor abruptly pivoted into a forceful attack on the financing plan for the Big Dig that Baker crafted when he was state budget chief in the 1990s. Bakerís plan for the project relied on heavy borrowing and modest toll increases, deferring the toughest decisions on tolls and taxes to future leaders, the Globe reported in June.
Patrick derided the plan as "the mother of all drags on the future," and "a great big albatross around the neck of the people of the Commonwealth."
Baker responded by saying that the Big Dig began in the 1980s under a Democratic governor, Michael S. Dukakis, and that he was in charge of only 10 percent of the total cost of the massive project. He accused his opponents of raising the Big Dig as a distraction, saying they were trying to "sit here today and blame all your problems on the Big Dig, which happened 20 and 25 and 30 years ago."
Baker also slammed Patrick for failing to give cities and towns more flexibility in designing health care plans for employees, retirees, and elected officials, which are severely straining local budgets. He cited $5 co-pays that many public sector workers pay, compared with $30 co-pays that are routine in the private sector.
"People just look at this and say it's not fair," he said.
Patrick, who signed the law giving municipalities, for the first time, the authority to join the state's cheaper, more flexible health care system, said his administration had done more than any other. He also mentioned at least twice the police outside the debate site who were protesting his leadership, pointing to the demonstration as evidence that he is not beholden to organized labor.
Baker, responding to a question about patronage scandals at the state Probation Department, laid the blame on one-party rule by Democrats.
"You get complacency, you get bad behavior, and you get laziness," he said.
Cahill, calling for a "new direction," said the real culprit was the two-party system. Citing his leadership of the School Building Authority, which he said had brought cost-saving reforms, Cahill said, "You can do the job. Neither one of you have done it, in my mind."
"People have lost faith in government. They've lost faith in Capitol Hill. They've lost faith in Beacon Hill," he said. "They've lost faith in Democrats and Republicans, in my mind."
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