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Candidates for governor sound off on social issues

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 10/20/2010, 4:09 a.m.

Last Sunday, more than 1,000 religious leaders and practitioners gathered at Temple Israel in Brookline to call on the Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates to address some of the toughest social problems facing their communities — usurious bank interest rates, youth violence and jobs, Haitian earthquake refugees and religious freedom.

The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), which organized the forum, specifically asked candidates whether they would help move public funds out of Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo/Wachovia, which, according to the GBIO, do not abide by state usury laws. Candidates were also asked to allocate $8 million of next year’s budget proposal for the Youth Works line item, and to create a comprehensive dwelling strategy and to push for legal work status for Haitian refugees.

 All four candidates — Gov. Deval Patrick, Charles Baker, state Treasurer Tim Cahill, and Dr. Jill Stein — affirmed their commitment to each of these issues.

“I’ve been at GBIO events in the past, so I know it’s very important to be clear about our ‘yeses,’” said Patrick. “So yes, yes and yes!” he enthusiastically declared, drawing applause from the audience.

Republican Baker however, seemed much more cautious in his commitment, qualifying his affirmations with conditions and stipulations.

Dr. Stein, candidate for the Rainbow-Green Party, focused her comments on the problem of economic inequality. “When we’re told there’s not enough money,” she said, “we’re being told that there’s not enough money for you.”

“The money is being captured at the top, and we need to rearrange a whole variety of policies to make sure the money is there,” she continued.

Independent candidate Cahill, who has worked with the GBIO as state treasurer to divest public funds from big banks due to their high interest rates, discussed his success in taking on big banks.

Despite this previous collaboration, Cahill found himself in the hot seat when the topic of religious freedom came up. This summer, Cahill denounced Patrick for “playing politics with terrorism,” and called on him to “look radical Islamic terrorism full in the face” after the governor visited the Islamic Society of Boston Community Center (ISBCC), a mosque in Roxbury. “I fully support equal protection under the law for every American, regardless of race or creed, but this political correctness has run amok,” he also said in the statement.

In response to his comments, the ISBCC, in partnership with Christian and Jewish leaders from the GBIO, publicly condemned Cahill’s comments. Bilal Kaleem, president and executive director of the Muslim American Society Boston chapter, called Cahill’s statement “divisive and wounding” because it “effectively blamed the entire Muslim community . . . for harboring terror.”

 But on Sunday, Cahill did not apologize for his remarks. “I must acknowledge that we disagree on this issue,” he said. “I want you to know that for me, in my heart, it is not about religious intolerance, I don’t believe in it, and I will not carry it forward as governor.

 “But when we speak about religious freedom, we also speak about political freedom, the ability to speak our minds, to hold our positions, to dig in our heels, but in the end come together,” he added.

Patrick, speaking after the state treasurer in the forum, reaffirmed the “centrality of religious freedom to who we are as Americans.”

 “Religious freedom is impossible without religious tolerance and without understanding,” he said.

 Baker also echoed themes of tolerance, mentioning his “mixed” family — his father is a Republican and his mother is a Democrat. “You can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.

The GBIO also questioned the candidates about their positions on state ballot Question 1, which threatens to repeal the state alcohol sales tax, Question 2, which would repeal the state’s affordable housing law, and Question 3, which would reduce the state sales tax rate. All four candidates oppose Questions 2 and 3, and signed a pledge to oppose the referendums if elected.

Baker and Cahill, however, support Question 1.