Friday, September 8, 2006

Thoughts on the Gubenatorial Debate

I closely watched last night's debate between the Democratic candidates for governor both because I love politics and because I have yet to decide which candidate will receive my vote on September 19th. Here's my take on the festivities...

Let me start with Tom Reilly. I was 99% sure that I would not vote for him anyway, and if any performance would bring out the tired sports cliche "110%," last night was it. As in, "I'm 110% sure I won't vote for Tom Reilly." Or, "Tom Reilly turned off 110% of the voters."

He really looked out of his league, and he was hurt by being placed in between Chris Gabrieli and Deval Patrick on the podium. It gave the effect of two intelligent adults (Gabrieli and Patrick) having a spirited conversation on the issues while the third guy (Reilly) periodically brings the conversation to a halt with a nonsensical comment that he thinks is relevant. I think we've all been in conversations like that.

His apparent strategy of attacking each of his opponents backfired too, making him appear shrill and more interested in mixing it up than discussing the issues. I thought Patrick did a fine job returning Reilly's volleys about Patrick's time at Ameriquest and his former tax problems. And Gabrieli looked fairly comfortable in ignoring Reilly's claims that Gabrieli's campaign had leaked the Marie St. Fleur story that broke yesterday morning.

The thing is, if Reilly had played it correctly, he could have used the St. Fleur controversy to his advantage. He is absolutely right that the disclosure of information from an individuals credit report is dirty on many levels. But, instead of ignoring a question about the income tax rollback and attacking Gabrieli in what could charitably called a non-sequitur, he should have waited for an appropriate moment (the next question was about St. Fleur) and condemned the leak at that time. I also think he would have been much better served to condemn the leak generically, and then use the spin room after the debate to make any specific accusations against the Gabrieli campaign.

The Attorney General also did a less than stellar job defending his record. Andy Hiller asked him a question about who he had put in jail over the Big Dig and how much money he had helped recover. Reilly should have been able to hit it out of the park by turning the question on the Republicans by pointing out that he was constrained by the contracts that Republican governors had signed limiting liability for the project's flaws. Instead, he fumbled and hemmed and hawed and eventually mentioned that he had recovered "$75 million," which caused my brother-in-law to remark "that's the best we could do on a $15 billion project?" I'm guessing there were a lot of voters who had the same reaction.

Reilly also stretched the truth later on as he tried to take credit for Jane Swift's decree that a special election to replace Congressman Joe Moakley be held as scheduled following the 9/11 attacks.

In contrast, Deval Patrick appeared to have both a command of the issues and was more positive and forward-looking than Reilly. He reiterated his opposition to lowering the state income tax, arguing that state taxpayers needed more relief from property taxes than from income taxes.

He was strong defending his record from Reilly's attacks, muting them with quick wit--or with well-rehearsed lines. Either way, he defended himself strongly without appearing shrill or defensive. When Reilly brought up a lien the government had placed on his home in 1996 for unpaid taxes, Patrick's response was "if you had shown this kind of curiosity about the Big Dig, we'd all be better off right now." When Reilly tried to saddle Patrick with responsibility for the failings of Ameriquest, Patrick responded " know perfectly well that I was brought in to be a part of that solution, I helped deliver that settlement and I am proud of that and you should be proud of it too."

Patrick also turned a question about whether or not he was too liberal into an asset, using his proposal to increase the number of police and to increase funding for drug treatment an intervention programs as an example of his willingness to do what is right for the state, whether it be a conservative or liberal position.

Not that it was completely smooth sailing for Patrick. He got into a snit with Gabrieli over whether or not UMass should receive money proposed for stem cell research over private institutions. I thought the exchange made Patrick appear more political than his opponent. And it was clear that the charge that Patrick promises more than he can deliver is his Achilles heel. When Hiller asked Patrick which programs he would cut, he sputtered and filibustered about finding efficiencies in government. Hiller followed by asking Patrick to name a time on the campaign trail that he has said no to a constituency and the candidate became more nervous, appearing visibly uncomfortable as he unconvincingly suggested he'd stood up to teachers and union workers looking for pay raises. Considering that Reilly has been taunting Patrick as "For-it-all Deval" in recent commercials and appearances, I would have thought Patrick would be more prepared for this line of questioning.

For his part, Chris Gabrieli appeared to be the most "gubenatorial" of the candidates. It may have been because he spent most of the evening above the fray as Reilly and Patrick sparred with each other. Or it may have been because he is much taller than the other candidates and just looks more like a governor. Either way, I thought he won the debate.

Gabrieli got off to a quick start by taking the question about the tax rollback and explaining his plan to spend a portion of future surpluses on local aid and tax relief. As I have written before I'm skeptical of his plan, but at least he took the opportunity to articulate a plan. Reilly ignored the question in favor of his attack over the St. Fleur story, and while Patrick reiterated that he thinks property taxes are too high, he didn't offer any sort of specific plan to deal with the issue.

That pattern revealed itself again when the issue of stem cell research was raised. Gabrieli outlined a specific plan of providing financial aid to research programs based on merit review, using Harvard University as an example. Reilly criticized the plan as a giveaway to Harvard but offered no alternative except to give the money to UMass, while Patrick tried to convince Gabrieli that money should be distributed to both public and private institutions. The discussion became pointless as the three candidates went around and around, but it played to Gabrieli's advantage because the three were arguing on how to distribute the money in Gabrieli's plan, not arguing the merits of different plans.

Gabrieli handled potential controversy deftly. He wisely did not respond to Reilly's charges about St. Fleur, twice ignoring the attacks. But more than that he appeared to be unfazed by them, neither appearing nervous or accepting of the charges. By not responding and not appearing defensive, he gave the impression that he was above the fray. Later, he was asked about the $8 million dollars of his own money he has spent on the campaign. He responded with humor--apologizing to his wife for spending that much--and followed with the best answer a wealthy candidate can give: "I'm putting everything I've got- my time, my energy, and significant personal resources because I care about this state. I don't need the job, I care about whether this state can finally get back on track."

The final debate of before the primary is Wednesday, September 13. I expect that will go a long way toward determining whether Gabrieli or Patrick will be the Democratic nominee.

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