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Rivals pound away in debate

Patrick, Baker, Cahill swap accusations; Focus on records more than on future

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By Frank Phillips and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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In a display of the increasing tension in the race, the three major candidates for governor attacked one another’s records aggressively last night in a major televised debate that focused far more on their pasts than on their visions for Massachusetts.

Governor Deval Patrick suggested that Republican rival Charles D. Baker helped cover up the true cost of the Big Dig in the 1990s. Independent Timothy P. Cahill accused Baker of failing to own up to a local property tax increase and higher health insurance premiums on his watch. And Baker hammered Patrick for his fiscal management, saying his decision to raise taxes had accelerated job losses in the private sector.

It was a freewheeling hour, featuring charges of lying, spirited clashes over the candidates’ value systems, and even a pointed jab over social class.

Baker often appeared the most aggressive, putting Patrick on the defensive over what the Republican said was the governor’s failure to make major changes on Beacon Hill.

“You didn’t go after restructuring and reforming the bureaucracy,’’ Baker said. “You didn’t go after streamlining state government.’’

At one point, Baker challenged Patrick over whether the state has made the same kind of economic sacrifices many families and businesses have been forced to make.

Patrick, citing cuts he has made to the state payroll, concessions from public unions, and spending reductions, said government had done “everything everyone else has had to do to make do with less.’’

Citing a Massachusetts family in which the mother and father were both serving in the military overseas, Patrick said: “I don’t see the budget as a math problem. I see the faces behind the line items.’’

“In the Commonwealth, we look after that family,’’ he continued. “You better believe I’m struggling with those decisions about what to cut.’’

Baker responded that there are also “plenty of faces behind a lot of the businesses’’ struggling with tax increases and regulations approved by Patrick.

The debate, held at the WGBH studios in Brighton, was cosponsored by the Globe and moderated by CNN’s John King, a Dorchester native. It was the sixth debate of the governor’s race and was expected to have the largest audience to date in the campaign. It was broadcast statewide through four Boston-area television stations — WHDH, WCVB, NECN, and WGBH — and on radio stations WBUR and WGBH, all of which were cosponsors.

The three major candidates did offer some prescriptions for the future — Cahill reiterated that he would slash health care subsidies for low-income residents, Baker pressed for further tightening of state pension rules, and Patrick promised to do more to get cities and towns into the state’s health insurance system. But most of the fireworks came in exchanges over their records.

Cahill, the target of a withering ad blitz by the Republican Governors Association, used the debate to confront Baker, who has tried repeatedly to link him to Patrick and tax increases the governor has approved.

The treasurer accused Baker of running from his own record, which he said included significant premium increases during Baker’s tenure leading Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and higher property taxes Baker approved as a Swampscott selectman.

“So my question is, Charlie, when you’re lying about my record on TV and then you’re not taking responsibility for your record over the last 20 years, how are the people of Massachusetts going to trust you?’’ Cahill asked.

Baker laced into Cahill, pointing out that Cahill endorsed Patrick in the 2006 Democratic primary, in part because Cahill supported Patrick’s opposition to a proposed reduction in the income tax rate. Baker accused Cahill of serving as an enabler for Patrick as the governor spent reserve funds and considered increasing the gas tax.

“You had the bully pulpit; you’re the CFO of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,’’ Baker said. “At the end of the day, you said very little, did very little.’’

Cahill shot back: “You’re still lying, Charlie. You’re still lying about the record that I have as treasurer, and you’re not addressing any responsibility for tax increases under your watch, for insurance premium increases under your watch, and for toll increases under your watch.’’

A fourth candidate, Jill Stein of the Green-Rainbow Party, used her position to attack Patrick from the left. As in past debates, Stein was often relegated to the margins, although she accused the governor of not going far enough to combat the root causes of youth violence and of upholding wasteful tax incentives for large corporations. She said that her opponents represent “three versions of business as usual’’ and that “it’s time to change it’’ by enacting stronger environmental laws and by moving away from standardized testing.

Baker, asked whether he gave Patrick credit for anything, said he would have never entered the race if he had felt the state was on the right track. He then said he was glad the governor had come to support charter schools.

“It bothers me tremendously that it took 3 1/2 years to get there,’’ Baker added.

When he was given the chance to question Baker, Patrick went after Baker’s role in the Big Dig when he was secretary of administration and finance under two Republican governors. Patrick said Baker had become the state’s “chief budget watchdog’’ at a time the state inspector general said a “coverup of cost overruns from $7 billion to $14 billion began.’’

“My question is, what did you do, specifically, to identify and to control the true costs of the project?’’ Patrick asked Baker, using the word “coverup’’ twice.

Baker did not answer the question directly. He responded that he was involved in the project only for four years during its 26-year lifespan and suggested the governor direct his question to James Aloisi, a former Turnpike Authority lawyer whom Patrick hired as his transportation secretary. Baker’s financing plan relied on heavy borrowing and modest toll increases, deferring the toughest decisions on tolls and taxes to future leaders, the Globe reported in June.

“The big lesson is not to kick the can down the road for someone else, and that’s what you did in the Big Dig finance plan, and I had to put my foot out to stop it,’’ Patrick said, asserting that the plan starved other transportation projects of money.

Baker asserted that his plan is virtually identical to the one Patrick is using to fund road and bridge repairs and suggested Patrick was now embarking on a fiscally irresponsible commuter rail extension to New Bedford.

Cahill made repeated references to differences in class, trying to paint Baker as wealthy and out of touch and himself as a hard-working former cafe owner from a middle-class family. For example, Cahill chided Baker for questioning him about the state’s unfunded pension liability, saying, “Stop trashing it, because middle-class people need it.’’

“Not all of us are going to retire as millionaires, as you will,’’ Cahill told Baker.

In his closing statement, Cahill mentioned growing up as one of nine children and watching his father lose his job.

“Job loss is not a statistic to me,’’ Cahill said.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com; Phillips at phillips@globe.com.

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