The half-dozen candidates running for the 8th Essex District seat sparred in the final debate before the Sept. 6 state primary on Monday night.
And they sparred before a crowd gathered in Marblehead High School’s auditorium over who had the right experience to succeed Marblehead resident Lori Ehrlich, in an election contest that candidates have struggled to single themselves out from the pack.
The hour-long debate, which Thor Jourgensen of Essex Media Group moderated, saw candidates touch on wide-ranging issues, from the MBTA’s failings, health care for the elderly, environmental issues and campaign experience, but touting their resume and public service is where candidates sought to make distinctions from their opponents. Candidates got to ask each other questions, and
The hour-long debate, which Thor Jourgensen of Essex Media Group moderated, saw candidates touch on wide-ranging issues, from the MBTA’s failings, health care for the elderly, environmental issues and campaign experience, but touting their resume and public service is where candidates sought to make distinctions from their opponents. Candidates got to ask each other questions, and Jorgensen also asked each candidate one question.
Jenny Armini, community activist and policy leader, touted her Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill tenures.
“I’ve…worked on policy at MassINC, fought for reproductive rights and more,” she said. “When my family came along, I pivoted and created a speech-writing business.”
She highlighted the importance of relationship-building to the role of a state representative.
“Relationships matter,” she said. “I’m proud of the relationships I’ve developed in my 17 years here in town.”
Marblehead immigration attorney Diann Slavit Baylis pointed to her experience fighting for gun control laws.
“Someone close to me died of gun violence, and from that moment on, I knew I had to get involved,” she said. “I helped bring the passage of a red flag law, and that’s one of my proudest accomplishments.”
Tristan Smith, a Swampscott Town Meeting member and the coach of a track & field team in Lynn, said he’s knocked on some 6,000 doors. The contest’s four female candidates, hours before the final debate, released a statement taking issue with Smith’s high-profile endorsements from Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and former congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney.
“They believe I can be the one who can deliver for this district,” he said, adding he’s proud of the endorsements.
Terri Tauro, president of a consortium of Marblehead unions and assistant to the town’s harbormaster, said she has fought for equal pay and uncovered problems in town, from workers exposed to asbestos to financial issues around the Marblehead transfer station. She promised to fight for her constituents.
“I speak truth to power. I speak from my heart and I believe in what I say…. I am passionate,” she said. “I fight for my people every single day. A vote for me is a vote for everyone in this district.”
Doug Thompson pointed to his deep experience as the chief financial officer of MassHealth, the Massachusetts Medicaid program, managing an $8.5 billion budget, which he said made him well-qualified for the state representative role.
“It’s clear we need someone who can deliver large-scale change on the issues,” Thompson said. “I’m uniquely qualified to actually deliver these changes.”
Polly Titcomb, the former chairwoman of the Swampscott Select Board and child and family law attorney, nodded to her experience advocating for children, and fighting child abuse, as well as her experience on the Swampscott Finance Committee.
“Professional background matters,” she said, “but what also matters is how that background translates into being an effective lawmaker. I have the background that would make me the most effective legislator.”
While the candidates were generally cordial, candidates had an opportunity to spar when given the opportunity to question other candidates.
Titcomb challenged Smith, asking him what experience has reviewing budgets and engaging in negotiation, skills that would be needed to help pass the state budget every year. Smith countered that he served as the Swampscott School Committee’s student representative and is a Swampscott Town Meeting member where they reviewed budgets, and is a lifelong resident of the district.
Tauro targeted Slavit Baylis, asking why she, as a Marblehead resident for just about a year, felt she was qualified to serve the district. Slavit Baylis explained that she’s loved the area for years, that her husband spent a lot of time here growing up, and she has lived on the North Shore for years, and has found a community where she wants to live for the rest of her life.
Armini and Slavit Baylis both fired questions at Thompson. Slavit Baylis asked about the $41,000 Thompson has either personally loaned or contributed to his campaign. Armini asked how Thompson could represent the district that hes lived in for three years.
“I’ve worked very hard my entire life,” Thompson said. “I’ve made this investment in myself, and have not taken contributions from others that would influence me.”
Thompson then called for public financing of political campaigns. It’s a way to level the playing field and to attract a more diverse set of candidates, he said.
Armini’s question inaccurately portrayed Thompson’s district relations, he said.
“I’ve been deeply immersed in the district and have been working in this area for a long time,” he said. “Knocking on a lot of doors has given me a good pulse on the needs of the community.”
Candidates also answered questions from Jorgensen, the moderator. During that segment, candidates each had a single question on a different topic.
Armini advocated for bike lanes and urged a return of the Lynn-to-Boston ferry to help ease traffic congestion while touting the need to electrify transportation across the state.
Asked whether she supported a $1 billion tax relief bill that was stalled in the State House, Slavit-Baylis acknowledged that there was a need for tax relief for many residents, but admitted she hadn’t made up her mind on the issue.
Smith said he supported allowing undocumented workers to get driver’s licenses.
“I favor it. There is a social justice issue at work here,” he said. “The people are working, and they need a way to get to work. You need to give people the ability to get around to get to their jobs.”
Asked about the state of public transportation in Massachusetts and on the North Shore, Tauro said, “I think we can all agree the T is not working to its potential.” She called for better state control of the MBTA, and called for modernizing the T’s commuter rail system, which relies on polluting diesel engines.
Thompson was asked if he supported revisiting Proposition 2 1/2, which limits town budget increases to 2.5 percent plus new growth. While acknowledging that the 42-year-old law has prevented large property tax hikes, he pointed out the law “has put communities in a bind,” forcing communities to have to seek contentious overrides.
“I definitely think we need to look at 2.5,” he said. “We need a more progressive taxation system.”
Asked if she felt the legislature should become a year-round body, Titcomb indicated some support for the idea, but she wondered what the long-term impact would be.
She pointed out that many legislators rely on outside income from other jobs, she said.
“It would be interesting to see what would change. I think the pay structure would need to change.” She indicated it could work if legislator salaries were made to be a “livable wage.”