The moderator of a Fifth Congressional District Democratic forum opened the two-hour event Monday night by noting that “there is much that these candidates have in common.”
Over the course of the subsequent two hours, that much was abundantly clear.
Just over three weeks before the special primary election in the race to succeed Edward J. Markey in the US House of Representatives, five of the seven Democratic contenders politely angled to differentiate themselves from their opponents on the ornately decorated stage at Cary Hall in Lexington.
The candidates also worked to introduce themselves to those in the 300-person crowd who might not know them. They repeatedly highlighted their biographies and emphasized their legislative accomplishments. (See other upcoming forums here.)
Many of the questions asked by the moderator, state Representative Jay Kaufman, elicited similar, sometimes rote-sounding answers from the candidates—three state senators, a state representative and a county sheriff. They all articulated cogent positions on issues that ranged from gun violence (they support expanding gun control) to the minimum wage (they favor raising it) to foreign policy in the Middle East (they support a peace process for the region and Israel as an ally) to the federal campaign finance system (they think it needs to be reformed).
But discussing issues of economic inequality, each showed a particular passion about the growing gap between the rich and poor in this country.
“We are rapidly on our way to becoming a country of the haves and the have nots,” state Senator Katherine Clark of Melrose said, emphasizing that she believes one of the fixes was “quality education, no matter what your ZIP code, no matter what your family’s income.”
“I think we really need to look at our priorities as a country,” said state Senator Karen Spilka of Ashland, noting the dichotomy between subsidies to big corporations and the way the government handles student loans. “I think we should be giving zero-interest college loans to our kids,” she said.
State Senator Will Brownsberger of Belmont cited globalization, automation, and education inequality as three of the drivers of the economic class divide, and said education was essential “to make sure that everyone in the economy has a shot at making a good transition to a better job.”
State Representative Carl M. Sciortino of Medford, said the issue is one that drives him and recalled his own upbringing, with his father, a single dad, working extremely hard to support him and his brother.
As in previous forums, the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, which allowed for unlimited spending on elections by corporations and labor unions, was a point of light contention. Brownsberger admitted he was “an outlier on this issue.”
“I do believe the Citizens United case was correctly decided,” he said. “Repealing the Citizens United case, as people suggest, would involve cutting into our First Amendment protections.”
The other candidates politely but strongly disagreed, supporting a Constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.
Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian of Waltham, a former state legislator, bemoaned the “unlimited, unregulated, non-transparent funds” that the decision had brought into the political process and called for an amendment.
After the forum, Lexington resident Stephen Tauber, an 81-year-old registered Democrat, said he came into the event undecided and left leaning toward one candidate, but was not yet a firm vote for anyone in the Oct. 15 primary. He said he heard similar positions from the candidates.
“In terms of the current political debate in this country, the differences are minor,” he said. For Tauber, the choice he faced heading toward the primary election was not necessarily a question of where the candidates stood on the issues, but who would offer the most effective representation in Washington, D.C.
He said he will have to attend another one of the upcoming forums before he makes up his mind.
Lexington, a wealthy, liberal town northwest of Boston where Democrats have a history of going to the polls in high numbers in special elections, has become something of battleground as the candidates vie for votes across the mostly suburban district that stretches from Winthrop to Holliston.
Since none of the candidates has a clearly defined electoral base here, the town has seen an outsize share of campaign activity since Markey won a US Senate election in June and vacated his Congressional seat.
While the debate was mostly a serious affair, there were also moments of levity.
At the beginning of the night, Koutoujian noted it was his 12th wedding anniversary. In his closing statement he joked that maybe a policy-heavy forum would be a way to celebrate his 13th year of marriage.
“Perhaps we could do this every year, honey?” he said to his wife, eliciting hearty laughter from the crowd.
Two of the candidates who will be on the Democratic ballot -- Martin Long, an Arlington author and Stoneham resident Paul John Maisano, who works in the construction industry -- were not invited to the forum.
In a short interview before the debate began, Kaufman said the format was set before they were candidates and there was “absolutely no evidence that the two other campaigns will affect the outcome.” He said the decision not to include Long or Maisano was his and he made it because he “did not want to distract from our ability to hear from the other five” Democratic contenders.
Long, for his part, stood outside the hall on a small black crate, making his pitch to people going into the event.
There are also three Republicans running for their party’s nomination in the Fifth: actuary Tom Tierney of Framingham; Harvard nanophysics researcher Mike Stopa of Holliston; and businessman and lawyer Frank J. Addivinola Jr. of Boston.
The special general election in the heavily Democratic district is Dec. 10.
Joshua Miller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos. A version of this article appeared in the Political Intelligence blog.