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Pagliuca takes on foes on health care

In a notably tepid Senate campaign, he provokes heated replies by rivals

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / November 20, 2009

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The placid campaign for US Senate was jolted yesterday by an unusually heated exchange, as Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen G. Pagliuca criticized two of his rivals over health care and both of them immediately fired back, with one directly attacking Pagliuca’s wealth.

“I’m certainly not going to take any lectures from someone who gave money to George Bush and supported Mitt Romney against Ted Kennedy, has hired lobbyists to block Wall Street reform, and made a fortune in part by gutting KB Toys, a great Massachusetts company, costing thousands of workers their jobs and their health insurance,’’ US Representative Michael E. Capuano said shortly after Pagliuca held a press conference in Boston to criticize Capuano and Attorney General Martha Coakley for pledging to oppose a national health care overhaul if it restricts insurance coverage of abortion.

Within minutes of Pagliuca’s press conference, Coakley met with reporters and called Pagliuca’s description of the health care debate “a false choice’’ and “a red herring.’’ Coakley also plans to launch a television ad today that, in part, bemoans Wall Street greed. The ad does not directly refer to Pagliuca, an investor with a personal fortune estimated at $400 million.

Capuano’s response, in the form of two written statements issued shortly after Pagliuca spoke, was a bit loose with the facts: Pagliuca was not among Bain directors involved in the KB buyout and did not serve on KB’s board of directors.

But the exchange shows the degree to which the campaign’s temperature has risen with just 18 days left until the primary election.

The back-and-forth began when Pagliuca held a press conference to argue that he is the only candidate who would deliver the type of health care legislation that the late US Senator Edward M. Kennedy spent his life fighting for.

“My two opponents in this race, Attorney General Martha Coakley and Congressman Michael Capuano, have failed to meet this test,’’ Pagliuca said, ignoring a fourth candidate, City Year cofounder Alan Khazei. “They will not be a reliable 60th vote in favor of health care reform.’’

Pagliuca said that Coakley is wrong on the issue and that Capuano is making a “tortured’’ argument in explaining why he voted in favor of initial House legislation that included the abortion restrictions, but would vote against a final version if it comes back in the same form. Pagliuca said health care is such a priority for him that he is prepared to support either of the major Democratic proposals being considered.

Pagliuca delivered his remarks yesterday at the Omni Parker House in downtown Boston, standing on a platform with two poster-sized placards beside him. One included quotations from the late senator and his two sons, Ted Kennedy Jr. and Patrick Kennedy, suggesting that restructuring the health care system should not get bogged down. The other placard had a depiction of the US Senate, with a question mark in the middle and “The 60th Vote?’’ written at the top.

“Health care reform has failed for generations because we’ve lacked the leaders in Washington who were willing to stand up and be counted and who refused to be derailed,’’ Pagliuca said. “We are at a crossroads today, and we cannot detour and turn our back on women and families who need fundamental reform in health care to survive.’’

Pagliuca has previously used broadcast ads to highlight his position. But yesterday he sharpened his attack and named his opponents for the first time.

Campaign aides are hoping Pagliuca’s stance on health care will be a major shake-up in what so far has been a race largely devoid of pointed shots at opponents. His event was the first time a candidate in the race had called a press conference specifically to challenge the other candidates in the race.

Coakley responded within minutes, inviting reporters to meet her after she toured a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge. Coakley said she would vote for the plan outlined this week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which contains some restrictions on abortion coverage but not as much as the version the House approved earlier this month.

“Health care is among the most important issues right now,’’ Coakley said. “We have the momentum. We have a plan today that I think most Americans can support. I certainly can.’’

In his statements, Capuano said he is still studying the health care legislation, which is 2,000 pages long, and would “pay careful attention to the strength of the public option, the impact that the bill could have on Massachusetts, and the issues surrounding choice.’’

Globe reporter Casey Ross contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.