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Gubernatorial candidates reach out to black delegates, voters in advance of convention

Yawu Miller | 6/11/2014, 10:43 a.m.
Gubernatorial candidate Juliette Kayyem makes a point while fellow contenders Steve Grossman, Martha Coakley and Don Berwick look on during a Democratic forum held at Roxbury Community College. (Banner photo)

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(Banner photo)

NECN newscaster Latoiya Edwards poses questions to Democratic gubernatorial candidates at a forum at Roxbury community college

Faced with questions about housing, criminal justice, economic development and other public policy areas, Democratic candidates for governor spoke about their accomplishments and their policy positions during a candidate forum sponsored by a collection of ward committees representing black, Latino and white liberal voting blocs in Boston.

The forum was held at Roxbury Community College and sponsored by the Democratic committees from wards 4, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 and 15, representing parts of Back Bay, the South End, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Dorchester.

Democratic activists estimated there were more than 100 delegates to the state convention in the audience, most of them people of color. The six gubernatorial candidates spoke following a forum with three candidates for lieutenant governor.

Asked what he would do to reduce the number of homeless Massachusetts families living in motels, doctor and former Obama administration official Don Berwick said he would restore funding for housing vouchers, which have been cut from $120 million in past years to just $60 million.

“I believe housing is a human right,” Berwick said. “We have to have more support than we have for housing vouchers.”

Joe Avellone, vice president at a biopharmaceutical research firm, advocated more funding for mental health and substance abuse, arguing mental illness and addictions are major drivers of homelessness.

Juliette Kayyem, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security advisor, advocated changing zoning laws to create more housing as well as increasing funding for social services and job training

Treasurer Steve Grossman took a similar tack, advocating construction of low and moderate income housing on surplus land currently owned by the MBTA, Massport and other state agencies.

Attorney General Martha Coakley used the opportunity to talk about her office’s lawsuit filed last week against mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, alleging that the lenders are blocking nonprofits from buying foreclosed homes and re-selling them to their previous owners.

Grossman expressed a willingness to raise taxes on wealthier Massachusetts residents while keeping tax rates low for moderate and low-income people to raise more funding for public schools.

Berwick said he would rein in health care costs, noting that health care costs now account for 42 percent of the state budget.

Kayyem received applause when she advocated forgoing incarceration on non-violent offenders to reduce prison spending, and channeling the savings into education.

The forum presented what was perhaps the candidates’ best chance yet to hone their messaging to black, Latino, Asian and white liberal voters. While many of the questions touched on issues of race and disparity, few of the answers offered by the candidates dealt specifically with race.

It was Dorchester’s Ward 14 Democratic Committee that brought race to the forefront with the question: “How have you addressed racism in your careers, and what will you do to level the playing field in jobs, housing and education?”

Kayyem noted that she started her law career working at the Department of Justice as a civil rights lawyer. Grossman pointed to his record in the Treasurer’s office, where 35 percent of his hires have been from “diverse communities.”

Avellone spoke about the time he served on the board of selectmen in Wellesley, where he worked with the police department to combat racial profiling. Coakley spoke about her office’s role in a lawsuit against banks for predatory lending. Berwick said he would build a cabinet in the governor’s office that reflects the diversity of the Commonwealth.

Democratic activists at the forum gave mixed reviews of the candidates and their approach to race issues.

“Some of the candidates’ answers sort of skated around it,” said Ward 15 co-chairwoman Sandi Bagley. “We don’t know how to have that discussion. As a society, we just don’t.”