State office seekers clash at local forums

September 10, 2010
By

David Taber


Gazette Photo By David Taber Ward 19 Democratic Committee co-chair Joel Watson (left) questions state senate candidates Hassan Williams and state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz at a forum sponsored by the Ward 11 and Ward 19 Democratic Committees at English High School Sept. 7.

Democratic contenders in two local state election races made their pitches at two recent forums—one hosted by the Jamaica Plain Progressives Aug. 25 and one hosted by the Ward 11 and Ward 19 Democratic Committees Sept. 7.

Incumbent state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz of JP is facing off against challenger Hassan Williams of Roxbury for the Second Suffolk state senate seat. Incumbent state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez faces challenger Jeffrey Herman, both of JP, in the race for the Fifteenth Suffolk state rep. seat.

The state primary is scheduled for next Tue., Sept. 14. There are no Republican or other candidates for either of the seats, so that vote will essentially ensure election in the two races.

The candidates did not precisely face-off at the August candidates’ forum sponsored by the Jamaica Plain Progressives at the Nate Smith House on Lamartine St. None were even in the room for the entirety of their opponents’ questioning by Melissa Threadgill and Reuben Kantor, chairs of the JP Progressives, and audience members.

At the Ward Committees forum, Chang-Dîaz and Williams shared a stage, but Herman and Sánchez ended up with separate slots because Sánchez showed up late.

The contestants each took the opportunities to sharply distinguish themselves.

The JP Progressives forum was essentially a follow-up conversation to a 31-question candidate survey put together by the group. The ward committees’ forum was followed directly by separate endorsement meetings by both of the wards, in which they each voted by two-thirds majority to endorse the incumbents Chang-Díaz and Sánchez.

The ward committees also heard from other candidates vying for seats in districts that include small parts of JP, and made endorsements in some of those races as well as some statewide races [see related article.]

Senate: Hassan Williams
“Building consensus” was a big part of senate hopeful Hassan Williams’s pitch to the progressives, so much so that he was unwilling, when pressed, to take stands on how he would vote on legislation regarding a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage.

“There are a lot of shared issues across the district that…if we were actually communicating about them, we could actually solve some of these issues. Something like public safety—it’s a serious issue for me, I am sure it’s a serious issue for you—I don’t see enough of JP aligning with Roxbury, aligning with Mission Hill, aligning with Beacon Hill, aligning with the Back Bay, to work on these shared issues,” Williams said in his introductory statement.

Responding to requests for clarification about his position on abortion, he essentially reiterated what he had said in his written response to the JP Progressives questionnaire: “A women’s right and a child’s right should be equal rights. I am not going to allow someone to put me in a pigeon-hole box and say, ‘He’s for this, and he’s against that’…These are conversations, that need to be had on a much broader scale than just in this room, about really how do we tackle this to make sure that we are valuing everybody in the process,” Williams said.

Likewise, on the question of same sex marriage, Williams, a lawyer, said in his response on the questionnaire that, “I believe same sex marriage is well settled law in Massachusetts, and I will not do anything to change that status.”

Pressed by Threadgill to clarify how he would vote if same sex marriage were to become “unsettled law” and was again brought before the state senate, Williams said, “At that point, that is when we are going to have that conversation.”

Williams said he believes taking a position would be a “diversionary tactic” that would “divide people…I am not going to be boxed in,” he said.

Williams described himself as “fiscally conservative. I don’t spend money I don’t have. From that standpoint, when I do my budget, I always look to see what am I overspending on.” Regarding the state budget, “I think the first thing I would do is find out where our waste is,” he said.

Williams said he is opposed to the state giving out no-bid contracts. When asked by the Gazette in a phone interview if he had any specific state contracts in mind, Williams said, “I have heard about them, I have been around contractors all my life.” He does not want to discuss specific contracts “until I am in that position of state senate.” At that point, “I will really be able to flesh out where they are,” he said.

He said at the JP Progressives forum that he does not think cutting waste will be enough to fill the entire state budget gap.

In his questionnaire response, Williams indicated he would oppose most tax increases—including sales and income tax increases—but that he might support increases in taxes on gas, candy and soda and certain tobacco products that are currently not taxed.

The state budget has been cut by about $9 billion over the past two years. Presuming continued belt-tightening is needed in the coming years, “For me, the priority always goes to those who need it most…I am making sure that people who need it get it first” including “elderly, disabled and homeless people,” Williams said.

Williams said he has “not had a lot of experience with the budget,” but he majored in finance in college and has taught math in Boston Public Schools. “One of the first things I would do when I am elected to the state senate is go over the budget,” he said.

He also said he thinks state elected officials could play a greater role in bringing new business into the state.

Williams said he would support the construction of casinos “in rural areas” where they do not directly impact the civic and economic infrastructure of Boston. He goes to casinos “once or twice a year,” he said, but “I like the concept of having to go somewhere and come back.” Casinos “suck the life out of cities…You might lose the Boston Pops” orchestra due to entertainment competition, he said.

Williams said he is opposed to the recently passed education reform bill because it continues a state policy of funneling funds that would otherwise go to public school systems into charter schools. Charter schools currently receive public funds on a per-pupil basis.

At the ward committees’ forum, Williams criticized a recently passed bill reforming state Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) rules, which allow potential employers access to applicants criminal records. That bill is aimed at limiting employers’ access to that information, and making it easier for ex-offenders to find jobs, but Williams said it does not go far enough. “We need to change the penal system to a rehabilitation system,” he said. Now, people who have been incarcerated “come out with the same knowledge, but more anger than they went in with,” he said.

Williams called for an increase in vocational training programs for offenders and ex-offenders.

Senate: Sonia Chang-Díaz
The incumbent state senator, finishing up her first two-year term, invited participants at both forums to review her record.

She highlighted securing an additional $1 million for youth summer jobs last year, helping secure funding for the Cass Recreational Facility in Roxbury, and new laws reforming pension and CORI rules as her key accomplishments.

Her JP Progressives questionnaire answers indicate that she is pro-choice and supports same sex marriage. She is also on the record, both in the questionnaire and in past actions, as supporting income and capital gains tax increases as “progressive” state revenue generators.

At the forum, describing tax increases as “the state revenue third rail,” Chang-Díaz said. “I don’t want to raise anyone’s taxes. But is it better than decimating the social safety net? Yes it is.”

The income tax, unlike the sales tax, which the state raised last year “recognizes the difference between people who are working and people who have been laid off,” she said. “We need to build a tax code that is fair and adequate for the things we say we want to do as a state,” she said.

“Politicians are a dime a dozen who will come before you and say, ‘All you have to do is cut the waste,’” she said. Adding that it is important to keep trying to increase the “efficiency” of the state budget.

“One million dollars for [the non-profit youth service organization] the Hyde Square Task Force, that’s some kids’ lives,” she said.

The legislature, in its recently completed session, undertook a number of waste-reducing measures, including pension reform, Chang-Diaz said. She said she recently filed legislation to improve oversight of the state Probation Department.

Chang-Diaz is opposed to legalized casino gambling. She reiterated that she does not think construction of proposed new resort casino complexes will begin in time to make a dent in what she described as “20 to 60 percent unemployment in the building trades.”

She also said, “I philosophically believe it is the wrong direction for the state to go in to put more of the tax burden on [its] poorest families.” Casino proposals, she said, are “the rich and powerful saying, ‘Instead of paying my fair share, I am going to fool my neighbors into thinking they are going to get rich quick, and get them to pay my taxes for me.’”

Last session’s education reform bill—aimed at giving school districts new tools to improve underperforming schools—“has its problems…but the positives outweigh the negatives,” Chang-Diaz said.

A former teacher, “I came to the table with a great sense of urgency to do something…Every year we fail to do something” affects thousands of students, she said.

At the ward committees forum, Chang-Díaz said she was “tremendously proud to have been part of the core team working to craft the passage” of the CORI reform bill. She listed a number of specific improvements the bill made to the CORI system, including: Banning employers from asking if potential employees have criminal records on preliminary job applications and barring employers from accessing information about employees’ involvement in the penal system other than pending cases and convictions.

“We believe in this country in ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” she said, saying the pre-legislation rules allowed employers to access information about things like arrests and dismissed charges.

House of Representatives: Jeffrey Herman
Herman, who is challenging state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez for the 15th Suffolk seat, said one reason he is seeking elected office to push for the legalization of medical marijuana.

Sánchez, who co-chairs the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, this year voted in committee to recommend medical marijuana bill “for further study” essentially killing it for the session.

Herman told the JP Progressives he “received an e-mail from [the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition] MassCann the next day asking me to run. I responded with two letters, ‘OK,’” he said.

In a phone interview, MassCann director Bill Downing told the Gazette his recollection is that he had personally called Herman and encouraged him to run. He had not been acting in his capacity as a MassCann official, he said. MassCann, as a registered 501c3 non-profit, is barred from supporting specific candidates.

Speaking generally about illegal drug policy at the ward committees’ forum, Herman said, “I think we need to look at drugs from the get-go…[and] treat drug addicts like patients—not criminals.”

Herman, like Williams, painted himself as more fiscally conservative than his opponent. He indicated in his survey responses that he would not support any new taxes. He also indicated that he would not support any cuts—including cuts to local aid, social safety net services or education funding.

In one section of the survey, he said he would not support state payroll cuts or freezes, but in another he said, “I…believe that all government salaries should be frozen until the economy improves.”

“I am not for any new taxes,” he said at the ward committees’ forum, “Though I am a very liberal social advocate, I am a very conservative fiscal adherent, especially in times of crisis,” he said.

At the JP Progressives forum, he declined to specify how he would handle an ongoing state budget shortfall. “I do not know the [budget process] like people who are incumbents—who have been in it,” he said.

Clarifying another confusing answer in his survey responses, Herman said he had meant to answer, “yes” instead of “no” to the question about whether he supports women’s rights to abortions.

Because of global overpopulation, Herman said, he would like to see incentives like tax credits offered to people who decide not to have children.

“I don’t believe in encouraging people to have an abortion who do not want an abortion,” he said.
House of Representatives: Jeffrey Sánchez

Sánchez focused on his experience in his remarks at the forum. “We need continued leadership in the upcoming session: I am that person,” he said.

In response to a question from Threadgill about what is seen by some as an insular culture on Beacon Hill, the incumbent state rep. said he is proud of the direction state government is taking. “We took on three huge issues people had not taken on in a long time relative to ethics—pension reform, campaign finance reform—and the [reorganization of] transportation infrastructure. Those alone are an indication that things have changed in the state. Does there need to be more? Absolutely. But in terms of what we’ve done so far, I think we’ve validated ourselves as a state in change,” he said. “The new normal for government is what we are building right now.”

At the ward committees forum, he expanded on his “new normal” theme, saying that increased civic engagement and dialogue are especially key to getting through tough economic times. The economic boom of “the 1990s was an anomaly,” he said. The “new normal” will involve finding new finding new avenues for community engagement, new funding sources and new ways to save.

Sánchez pointed, as an example, to efforts he is engaged in to curb spiraling health care costs by promoting preventative care strategies. “We have to figure out how to deal with [the new economic reality] in its entirety,” he said.

At the JP Progressives forum, Sánchez said he is opposed to legislation legalizing medical marijuana because it is unclear how the federal government will react to such a law in the future. President Obama has issued a policy directive ordering the United States Atorney’s Office not to enforce federal laws regarding medicinal marijuana where it is allowed by state law. But, “What happens after eight years?” Sánchez asked. “I do see the benefits, but I do not want the federal government banging on someone’s door at a time when they are suffering the most,” he said.

As in previous forums, Sánchez highlighted his support for affordable housing development, the recently passed education reform bill, and an income tax increase. He is a strong supporter of abortion access and same sex marriage, he said at the progressives forum.

On education reform, he said he fought, in particular, for changes to how English Language Learners are taught and provisions that require “input from community members and teachers, but primarily input from parents” when turnaround plans are being developed for underperforming schools.

He came out against some other policy proposals put forward by the JP Progressives, though, including publicly funded elections.

“I do not and will not support publicly financed campaigns,” he said. The $125,000 a five-way state rep. race would cost if each candidate that made the primary ballot got $25,000 could better be used to support under-funded after-school programs in the community, he said.

For videos of the state senate and rep. candidates at the JP Progressives forum, and copies of their questionnaire responses, see jpprogressives.com.