Democrat Deval L. Patrick, who has come under attack from his rivals in the primary campaign for his resistance to lowering the state income tax rate, said last night that he might support a rollback to 5 percent if the Massachusetts economy strengthens.
Patrick, joined by four other gubernatorial candidates at a forum at Roxbury Community College, said that although he opposes a rollback from 5.3 percent to 5 percent now, the state might be able to afford the lower rate in the future if the economy sees a significant expansion.
``I do think that we can get to a point one day when we can sustain a 5 percent rate," Patrick said. ``The only way to get there is by growing the economy."
Patrick argues that cutting the income tax rate would starve cities and towns of state local aid revenue, leading the municipalities to raise property taxes. But his remarks indicating an openness to consider a lower rate down the road are a response to the criticism he has endured on the issue from Democratic rivals Thomas F. Reilly and Christopher F. Gabrieli. Reilly has called for an immediate rollback, a change from his position last year. Gabrieli has called for a phased rollback.
Patrick's remarks on taxes came as the three Democrats, independent Christy Mihos, and Green-Rainbow Party candidate Grace Ross traded opinions at the forum on housing, immigration, and other issues important to urban neighborhoods.
The forum, which was sponsored by the Boston Association of Black Journalists, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, and several other organizations, featured mostly tame answers on policy matters, but the candidates did spar on a few issues, most notably the Big Dig.
Reilly came under attack for the failures of the $14.6 billion project, fending off criticism that he was an ineffective watchdog as costs spiraled and problems mounted. He was put on the defensive by a question about how the state could restore faith in the project after the July 10 death of a motorist in an Interstate 90 tunnel.
Patrick, who was sitting next to Reilly, accused him of lax oversight: ``The compounded tragedy really is that it took a tragedy before our governor, our lieutenant governor, and -- Tom, I'm sorry to say it's my view -- our attorney general to show interest" in what happened on the project.
``That is why I think so many people in Massachusetts say: `I'm done with government. Give me my money back,' " Patrick said.
Reilly responded by placing much of the blame on Republican administrations over the past 16 years, saying their cozy relationship with project manager Bechtel/ Parsons Brinckerhoff and other contractors had made it ``very difficult" to go after the companies.
``I'm as outraged and upset and angry at what has happened with the Big Dig as any one of you or anyone in this state," Reilly said, vowing to ``pierce the barriers" that have protected the companies.
Reilly then hit back at Patrick by saying, ``It's the difference between doing something about it, and sitting on the sidelines critiquing someone else doing their job."
Gabrieli and Mihos also criticized the state's role in the Big Dig, with Mihos, a former Turnpike Authority board member, saying, ``Any elected politician who acts with silence has betrayed the public trust."
About 700 people crowded into an auditorium at Roxbury Community College for the event, which lasted about two hours.
Another debate, featuring the three Democrats and co sponsored by the Globe and several other media organizations, is set for 7 tonight. NECN, WCVB-TV, WGBH-TV, WHDH-TV, and WBUR radio will air that debate live.
The Republican candidate, Kerry Healey, declined an invitation to participate in last night's forum, as she has with several similar candidate events.
Healey's strategy is to wait and engage the victor of the Democrats' Sept. 19 primary.
The audience was, for the most part, polite to each candidate, but its members didn't hesitate to show their displeasure.
When Gabrieli explained his opposition to providing in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants, his words were barely audible over the boos and hisses.
``I know it's controversial," he said.
Mihos, as he often does, supplied the night's levity. At one point, he said, ``I'd like to ditto that" to an answer Gabrieli gave about same-day voter registration. The quip drew big laughs from the crowd.
Later, when a forum moderator poked fun at him for it, Mihos said, ``I'm in the convenience store business. I'm trying to give you back your time, all right?"
Patrick was interrupted several times during the event with cheers of ``Amen" and ``absolutely."
``It sounded like it was a Patrick crowd," said Beverly Williams, 55, a Boston teacher from Dorchester. ``He's very charismatic and that's carrying him a long way."
Other audience members said they liked Ross, a community organizer, despite her long odds of victory.
``The odd thing is that Grace Ross made the best impresssion, even though she is the least likely to win," said Eric Esteves, a 27-year-old from Roxbury.