July 24--METHUEN -- The two Republican state senate candidates would open health insurance markets by allowing competition from out of state, while two of the three Democrats said they would override the governor's veto of restrictions on how electronic food and welfare benefits can be used.
In the first debate between candidates for the First Essex Senate, the five candidates in the party primary explained how they would encourage job growth, improve education funding and make the state government function more efficiently. Each group of candidates answered questions from moderators of the opposite party, and from residents.
Republicans Shaun Toohey and Sam Meas, both of Haverhill, said the residents and the state could save money on health insurance by allowing more competition from insurers not in Massachusetts, particularly by opening the state-operated online market, the Health Connector.
"The problem with Romneycare is the way it is being set up," Meas said. "The health savings we were supposed to have aren't there."
They both described themselves as conservatives, with Toohey pointing to "standing my ground" on the Haverhill School Committee with a teachers' contract, negotiations that lasted for five years.
"I held the line on spending," he said.
Meas, meanwhile, said he supported small government. "The problem is once you create a program, the bureaucracy has its own tendency to get bigger and bigger," he said.
As a result programs and agencies tend to be inefficient, and for that reason he said he would not support expansions of the MBTA into New Hampshire. "Remember the Big Dig?" he said. "They promised us it would be $7 billion. Now what is it, $25 billion?"
Toohey said he wanted the MBTA to focus on running more efficiently, including by adding a second track on the Haverhill commuter rail line, and replacing its aging engines and cars. "It's not an area where you say no," he said. "The area where you say no is wasteful spending."
Both Republicans criticized Gov. Deval Patrick for rejecting new restrictions on how food assistance and welfare benefits paid with state electronic benefit transfer cards could be spent.
The Democrats, during their turn, said any restrictions should to be implemented carefully so the benefits are used as they are intended and still reach residents in need.
"We want to be sure the people who need those benefits aren't scapegoated," said Tim Coco, a Haverhill businessman running as a Democrat.
William Manzi, the former Methuen mayor, said he would vote to override Patrick's veto of the restrictions. Kathleen O'Connor Ives, a city councilor from Newburyport, agreed, saying she believed everyone wanted the system to be efficient.
"I don't know anyone who's going to say they're in favor of EBT being used for alcohol and tattoos," she said.
The Democrats were conflicted about whether to support the new three-strikes law that created a list of violent crimes that, upon a third conviction, would automatically result in a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
"I myself agree with the governor that some judicial discretion should have been left in," said Manzi.
He and O'Connor Ives said they supported the reduction of minimum mandatory sentence for some nonviolent offenders, including people with drug and mental health problems, that was included in the law.
"Inflexible sentencing is not the right solution for that," she said.
Meas and Toohey both said they supported the mandatory sentencing. "I believe when someone commits three violent acts, enough is enough," Meas said.
Haverhill resident Paul White said the candidates generally avoided giving substantive answers. "I thought it was typical political dancing around the question," he said.
Dan McGraw, a counselor from Haverhill who asked the candidates of both parties about the three-strikes mandatory sentencing law, said he thought the Democratic candidates gave thoughtful answers, while the Republicans resorted to fear mongering. "They didn't address the fiscal issue (of imprisoning more people) even though they said they were fiscal conservatives," he said. "All they said was there are rapists and we all have children."
Meanwhile, Jerry McCall, of Methuen, said he thought Meas made a good point when he dismissed expanding public transportation by comparing new projects to the Big Dig. "I think he hit that out of the park," McCall said.
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