Baker, Gonzalez spar in first debate over who has vision to lead
Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez had their first debate ahead of the November election on Tuesday.
Gov. Charlie Baker and his challenger Jay Gonzalez met in a televised debate for the first time Tuesday night, where the Republican incumbent focused on his accomplishments in his nearly four years in office and Gonzalez, a Democrat, cast himself as someone with vision to take the state beyond business as usual.
In the hourlong WBZ-TV debate, the two men sparred over issues including transportation, education funding, tax policy and Baker's endorsement of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Geoff Diehl.
Gonzalez knocked Baker for delivering "small-ball, status quo stuff," while Baker accused Gonzalez of offering "empty promises."
Gonzalez brought up Baker's endorsement of Diehl, a state representative from Whitman who was involved in President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, three minutes into the debate, responding to moderator Jon Keller's question about abortion rights. Both Baker and Gonzalez are pro-choice.
"By backing Geoff Diehl, Gov. Baker is supporting an anti-choice agenda as well as an anti-LGBTQ, pro-NRA agenda, and I would never support someone like that who could go tip the balance in the United States Senate, someone who would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh and might vote to confirm the next Brett Kavanaugh," Gonzalez said.
Baker touted his own "D" rating from the NRA, and said it will be important for the next governor to build bipartisan relationships. He did not vote for president in 2016 and said his views on Trump and opposition to several of the president's positions are "quite well known."
"I'm running for governor, not Geoff Diehl," Baker said.
Baker and Gonzalez share similar backgrounds, both having served as state budget chiefs before stints as health insurance executives.
When Gonzalez went after Baker over the state of the MBTA, Baker countered that he had inherited the system from Gov. Deval Patrick's administration, in which Gonzalez was administration and finance secretary.
Gonzalez said Baker needs to listen to commuters.
"With the lack of urgency and the fact the system hasn't been fixed, I'm surprised commuters haven't revolted and started a petition to change the name of these T passes from CharlieCard to 'Where's Charlie Card," Gonzalez said, brandishing a T pass before slipping it back in his pocket.
Baker said his administration "went hard at making significant investments in the T," spending on items like signals, switches, third rail and track necessary to improve service.
To pay for new investments in education and transportation, Gonzalez has proposed taxing the endowments of the state's nine wealthiest private colleges and universities. He also plans to pursue a constitutional amendment instituting a surtax on incomes over $1 million, a measure knocked off this year's ballot when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it was unconstitutionally drafted.
Baker said his administration intends to spend $8 billion on capital projects at the T over five years, saying the that plan was "not made up of funny money."
"His three billion dollars wouldn't actually start until his second term, because two billion of that is associated with a constitutional amendment that he has to get through two sets of the Legislature before it actually happens," Baker said.
Asked afterward about his approach to revenue, Baker said the $8 billion in capital spending at the T was "already baked into our financials" and could be done "without going back to the taxpayers."
"I said before that I'm not interested in going back to the taxpayer, but that said, I have supported a number of initiatives that either level the playing field -- and I'm still hoping we get an Airbnb bill done by the end of the year, I don't think that one's fair to the hotel industry -- and I supported some modest taxes on other things where you either had a level playing field issue or something else that was involved," Baker told reporters when asked if he'd pursue new taxes in a second term. "But as a general rule, I don't think balancing the budget should be coming out of the pocket of the taxpayer."
Gonzalez said he was honest about asking the wealthy to pay more in taxes and said that his revenue proposal has been met with enthusiasm on the campaign trail.
"The status quo is not working for working families across this state, and our transportation system is the thing I hear the most about everywhere I go," he said. "I will provide the bold leadership we need to fix it."
Gonzalez said repeatedly he would fight for "the little guy" and "aim high," and described the "status quo" under Baker as "not good enough."
Baker disputed the idea that he was a "status quo governor," saying the state would not have taken steps toward major wind and hydropower procurements and instituted reforms at Bridgewater State Hospital if that were the case.
Baker turned one of his opponent's lines on its head, raising the issue of cuts at the Department of Children and Families and for early childhood education when Gonzalez was in Patrick's cabinet during the recession of the late 2000s.
"When he had his tiller on the state budget, he cut the Department of Children and families," Baker said. "Now that's about as little guy as you can get….We've increased spending at DCF by $180 million, because we believe we should be spending on the little guys and the little gals and the moms and dads that are associated with that agency."
Gonzalez accused Baker of "fuzzy math" and said Baker was working off the "same old Republican playbook" of no new taxes and leaving working families behind.
Polling in the race has consistently given Baker a wide lead over Gonzalez, who remains unknown to a large swath of voters.
A WBUR/MassINC survey conducted from Sept. 17 through Sept. 22, gave Baker a 66 percent to 22 percent lead, with 45 percent saying they had not heard of the Democrat nominee. Among Democrats, Baker was ahead 52 percent to 32 percent.
Baker also maintains a commanding fundraising advantage, with $4.9 million in the bank at the end of September, compared to Gonzalez's $201,610, and Baker's campaign has already spent millions on the race.
"I feel great about tonight, excited to have the chance to present a clear choice to voters and as we're talking to people all across the campaign trail, people are just starting to tune into this race and we are earning a lot of support, so I feel very good about where things stand and our chances of winning this election," Gonzalez said after the debate.
On the subject of public education, Gonzalez said he wanted to "increase the pie" of state support and that he backs changes to the school funding formula. He said Baker has "no plan to invest more."
"You can't fund local aid, you can't fund K-12 education on empty promises," Baker told Gonzalez.
"Your plan is zero additional investment," Gonzalez shot back. "Whether you think three billion dollars in additional tax revenue from the wealthy each year is enough or not, it's three billion dollars more than you're promising."
Both candidates also were asked if they agreed with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's description of the criminal justice system in a speech this summer as "racist" from "front to back."
Gonzalez called the criminal justice system "the biggest civil rights issue of our time" and said racial disparities need to be addressed.
Baker said he does not "think our system is racist from front to back," but believes it has issues that need to be fixed.
The two candidates will next square off on Oct. 17, in a debate hosted by WGBH.