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Jamaica Plain Progressives check out the Democratic candidates for governor during visits to Doyles

Posted by Your Town  December 9, 2013 11:50 AM

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The five Democratic gubernatorial campaigns have crossed paths in recent weeks at Doyle’s Cafe, talking policy as the Jamaica Plain Progressives sipped beers and pitched questions.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, Treasurer Steven Grossman, health executive Joe Avellone, former homeland security official Juliette Kayyem and former Medicare and Medicaid chief Don Berwick have all faced questions from members of the liberal group gathered in a backroom of the storied restaurant.

While Coakley and Grossman have the best name recognition and Coakley has led in polls, it was the three lesser known candidates who took turns speaking and answering questions last Wednesday.

“The insurance system has to deliver value or else it will move toward single-payer,” said Avellone, who told the group he is “not religious about single-payer,” a system where generally one government-run entity would handle all health insurance, and said the focus should be on how medical care is delivered.

Avellone, a former Wellesley selectman who has said more spending on education can be accomplished by increasing efficiency in the health care system, also said he is “interested” in a tax on carbon emissions as long as it is “revenue neutral.”

Kayyem, who served in homeland security posts for Patrick and President Barack Obama, said “the merits are great” regarding a single-payer health system, but such a change would not be a focus if she won the Corner Office.

“I’ve got limited time and good will, if any, with Beacon Hill. So where would I expend my energies? I’m going to be honest with you, it probably would not be on pushing for single-payer,” said Kayyem, who said she did not believe such a measure would pass the Legislature, and said she would focus on preparing the state for global warming’s effects and removing burdens for veterans seeking work and health care.

“I know a lot of Democrats don’t talk about it, but we owe our veterans a lot,” said Kayyem.

Berwick, who was Obama’s choice to run Medicare and Medicaid, but did not receive congressional approval to hold the position permanently, indicated more willingness to move toward single-payer, a path taken by Vermont.

“We have built a complicated system that is just eating us,” said Berwick, a pediatrician, who said he hopes the health care reforms work, but if not “one of the biggest changes we might make is single-payer.”

State lawmakers overhauled the health care system in 2006, requiring individuals to purchase coverage while helping to enroll more low-income individuals in subsidized care, and last year enacted a series of measures designed to slow the rising cost of health care.

Berwick also fielded a question on medical marijuana, which was legalized by voters in 2012, and the legalization of marijuana for non-medical purposes, which activists hope to place on the 2016 ballot.

Berwick said marijuana can be “the only really effective treatment” in some cases and the state shouldn’t “deny people on some theoretic grounds” access to a drug that could ease their symptoms, and even indicated openness to supporting legalization of marijuana.

“I’d want to take a close look at it,” said Berwick, who also said he had seen the results of people who “have been really victims, of really severe overuse of marijuana.”

Earlier this year, Patrick unsuccessfully pushed for $1.9 billion in new tax money by raising the income tax, increasing the income tax deductibles, eliminating numerous exemptions, increasing corporate taxes and lowering the sales tax. The governor said his plan would have led to a more progressive form of taxation and provided needed funding for education and transportation investments.

“I basically supported the direction of this governor’s proposal,” said Berwick, who steered his answer toward health care, where he said there is 30 to 35 percent “waste,” and said “as governor I would focus on that.”

Avellone said he opposed the governor’s plan, but would favor a “straightforward” approach toward making the tax system more progressive, by changing the state constitution to allow for graduated rates. Avellone also said he favored increasing the gas tax, which the Legislature did this year by 3 cents a gallon, and opposed the computer services tax, which the Legislature passed and then swiftly repealed.

“You need a governor and a Democratic governor, even if it’s not me, who’s going to be asking for a billion well aware that you’re going to get half a billion, because that half-a-billion investment in infrastructure is really, really good for the state,” said Kayyem who said she was largely in favor of the governor’s proposal and pleased with what the Legislature passed.

Kayyem was receptive to a proposal to divest the state’s pension fund from fossil fuel companies, saying, “What I’ve seen is we can do it without being disruptive to the pension fund.”

“As divesting in fossil fuels as a symbolic act, I’m not sure it helps us,” said Avellone, who said he favors “creative” approaches, such as using the pension fund to invest in infrastructure.

Officials of the group said they would gauge interest among members before deciding whether to endorse a candidate, and said they were seeking liberal policy commitments and Berwick, followed by Kayyem, seemed to best meet that test.

“I may not be the most progressive candidate, but I’m the one who is going to get things done,” Avellone told the crowd.

Berwick scored a big cheer, noting that the controversial right wing personality Glenn Beck called him the “second most dangerous man in America.”

Kayyem, who oversaw the National Guard as an undersecretary to Patrick, also earned some laughs describing how she was at the top of the chain of command, which included a former Republican U.S. senator.

“I like to say, Scott Brown did report to me. Just saying,” Kayyem said.

On the Republican side, Charlie Baker enjoyed the first part of the fall with the field to himself, and picked up a challenge from Shrewsbury manufacturer Mark Fisher more recently.

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