Four days after the state Democratic party trimmed the group of candidates for Massachusetts governor down to three, the remaining Democrats — who’ve often echoed one another on policy — are beginning to sound unique.
At a WBUR debate Wednesday morning — the first broadcast debate since the convention — it seemed obvious the three candidates were trying to distinguish themselves.
“I’m the only candidate before you that’s against casinos and for the repeal [of the expanded gaming law],” said former Obama administration Medicare and Medicaid administrator Donald Berwick. “I think they will harm the commonwealth with problems of mental health issues, substance abuse, gambling addiction, and they’ll hurt small business.”
Both state Treasurer Steve Grossman and state Attorney General Martha Coakley said they would not vote for a casino repeal, should it make it to November’s ballot.
Grossman tried to set himself apart by offering a bold promise for addressing the opiate crisis in the state.
“We are not treating drugs as a health issue, as a health care issue. We’re treating it as a criminal justice issue,” Grossman said, in an implicit dig at Coakley, who was seated beside him at a round table.
“The first thing I would do within my first month in office as governor would be to issue an executive order and suspend prison construction in this state,” Grossman said.
He said building more prisons is not the solution. “There are way too many people who are guilty of low-level drug offenses sitting in our jails, sitting in our prisons, and we’ve got to change that,” he said. “We’ve got to take that money and use it for building more detox beds, more stepdown units, more recovery units, more community-based care.”
On gun control, all three said they would sign Speaker Robert DeLeo’s gun reform bill, which has passed a House committee. But Grossman turned the question to Coakley and asked her why she didn’t support a separate policy to limit gun purchases to one a month.
“Unless you’re trying to arm a militia, I don’t think you need to buy more than one gun a month,” Grossman said.
In one of the most candid moments of the hourlong debate, Coakley quickly retorted: “I don’t understand what you don’t understand, Steve.”
She said the one-gun-a-month issue is not the problem in Massachusetts. She implied it was a distraction.
“We have problems with illegal guns and people who are unstable to have them,” she said. “I think we should be focusing, as we have in Massachusetts, on our own gun laws.”
Some analysts had suggested that following the convention, the Democratic primary would turn into a contest between Coakley, who’s leading early polls, and Grossman, who won the party’s endorsement at the convention.
But one side-effect of Berwick’s relative success at the convention last weekend (he came in third place, just 1 percentage point behind Coakley) is that he seems to be shifting the conversation, at least at this early stage, further to the left.
“I’m the most progressive candidate in this field,” Berwick said in his debate introduction.
But that word, “progressive,” is a term Grossman is also using.
“I want to be known four years down the road as a progressive job creator,” he said.
Another way Berwick seems to be adjusting the conversation is on the issue of a single-payer health care system.
“I’m the only candidate committed to single-payer health care, Medicare for all,” he said.
It’s been a key point in his bid for governor. He’s a trained pediatrician who created the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a nonprofit based in Cambridge.
Grossman said he wants to lead the “conversation” on single-payer health insurance.
“Steve, I don’t think single-payer is something for discussion, I think it’s something to make happen,” Berwick said. Grossman interrupted him and asked him how he intends to make the change.
“Nobody can wave a magic wand, Don. You can’t do that. This is not a monarchy,” he said. “You’ve got to build a consensus in our society around any dramatic societal change.”
But, even if Grossman knocks the tactics, he’s talking about a topic that wasn’t on the table before Berwick made it his focus.
Coakley was hesitant to disregard the idea entirely.
“I don’t rule it out ever, but … this is a very complicated topic,” she said.
In her lengthy response, she said Massachusetts has exceptional health care quality, and she fears a single-payer system might sacrifice that high standard.
After 36 seconds, she circled back, sounding more concrete in her rebuttal of a single-payer health insurance system. “We’re not ready to go to single-payer yet, and anyone who says that going to single-payer saves costs automatically, I don’t think is correct,” she said.
The WBUR debate covered a wide range of policy issues, including taxes, health care and charter schools.
And while the candidates had a few moments of disagreement, they still often parroted one another. They all agreed the death penalty should not be used against Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, if he’s convicted. And they all said the rollout of medical marijuana in the state has been a failure.
But in their agreement, there are different shades of unison.
When WBUR host Bob Oakes asked if the state’s wealthiest residents pay their fair share in taxes, Berwick and Grossman empathically said, “No, they don’t,” while Coakley said, “Probably not.”
In a field of liberal Democrats, that “probably” could be telling.
The other telling fact is that their top Republican opponent, front-runner Charlie Baker, was not mentioned even once in 60 minutes.
In the coming weeks, WBUR plans to hold two additional forums with the Republican and independent candidates for governor.