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Senate rivals face off in civil debate

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse and Yawu Miller
Senate rivals face off in civil debate
Five of six Senate candidates gather at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass., Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009. The six candidates are vying for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. From left to right are Republicans state Sen. Scott Brown. Jack E. Robinson and Democrats U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, Alan Khazei and Stephen Pagliuca. The party primaries are Dec. 8 and the special election is Jan. 19, 2010. (Photo: AP /Nancy Palmieri)

Author: AP /Charles KrupaFive of six Senate candidates gather at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass., Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009. The six candidates are vying for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. From left to right are Republicans state Sen. Scott Brown. Jack E. Robinson and Democrats U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, Alan Khazei and Stephen Pagliuca. The party primaries are Dec. 8 and the special election is Jan. 19, 2010.

If the crowd of more than 800 people who filled the Bethel AME church Sunday were looking for a dust-up between the four candidates running for an open U.S. Senate seat, they went home disappointed.

The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) activists who put together the candidates forum discouraged verbal sparring by keeping the candidates focused on a narrow agenda, asking them to answer yes or no to supporting their four legislative priorities.

“Usually when you come to events like this, the candidates come to the stage to share their platform of issues they have prioritized,” said Reverend Hurmon Hamilton, pastor of Roxbury Presbetyrian Church president of the GBIO. “But not tonight. Tonight they have come to hear our platform, presented by our real people, who will tell real stories to illustrate the issues that are our priorities.”

GBIO was instrumental in passing health care reform legislation in Massachusetts and brought together over 40 religious organizations and nearly 800 of their congregation members to challenge the Democratic candidates on issues of health care, jobs, access to higher education, and usury.

Those issues included: protecting Massachusetts health care standards under national health reform; ensuring that documented immigrants have health coverage; bringing $100 million to Massachusetts for job training; capping interest rates on private student loans at the same rate as federal student loans; making it possible to discharge student loans through bankruptcy; and capping interest rates at 10 percent.

Perhaps because the candidates are running to fill a seat held by Edward Kennedy, a stalwart liberal during his nearly five decades in the Senate, the candidates have advanced nearly uniform positions on major issues.

While there were few disagreements Sunday, the differences between candidates were revealed in their style.

Going in alphabetical order, U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano kicked off the forum, stressing his track record of championing many issues GBIO is now pushing during his 11 years in the House.

“Every issue hit tonight is a homerun,” Capuano said and explained that his voting record and work in Congress demonstrate his commitment to the issues. He also went beyond many of GBIO’s policy recommendations, saying, “In today’s world, 10 percent (interest rate) is too much.”

Capuano said he would go lower. “It should be [capped] at or above the prime interest rate,” he said.

Capuano also exceeded GBIO’s recommendation to remove the protection against bankruptcy for student loans, calling for all personal debt to be covered under bankruptcy law.

Capuano again stressed his track record. “The things we talked about tonight are not just words,” he said. “They are the reason I ran for city council, mayor and congress. I’ve stood with you on every issue we have mentioned tonight. Not just stood with you — led on some and followed on others.”

Following Capuano, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley spoke about the need for the legislature and president to level the playing field between moneyed interests and middle- and low-income people.

“The American dream has been turned upside down,” she said. “The wealthiest people in the United States have gotten bailed out with no strings attached.”

Coakley said she would support an 8 to 10 percent cap on interest rates.

“It’s gotta happen in Washington and it’s gotta happen soon,” she said.

Coakley pledged to keep her doors open to GBIO once in the Senate.

“You we be able to meet with me any time,” she said. “You know that because you have met with me as attorney general.”

Coakley then enumerated a list of her achievements in government, especially on predatory lenders, home foreclosures, student loans and workforce development. She also emphasized government fairness, saying that one reason for her Senatorial bid is to “get back to fairness for everyday working Americans.”

On the question of bringing in $100 million for jobs, Alan Khazei, a social entrepreneur, said he already has brought that amount to Massachusetts through his work running City Year, the national jobs corps he founded in 1988.

“I know how to get that done,” he said, noting that he is “running on a platform of big citizenship” and that he is “the only movement leader in the race.”

Khazei further said that health care “needs to be a right, not a privilege,” even for immigrants. He also advocated moving student loans away from companies and back to the government, but would not commit to the 10 percent interest cap.

When pressed on his refusal to commit to working for such a cap, Khazei noted that the Senate had failed to secure a 36 percent cap on interest in a previous vote.

“I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear,” he said. “I’m going to tell you what I think I can get done.”

Stephen Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics, presented himself as “the jobs Senator” and sounded a similar note as Khazei on an interest rate cap. “If we can’t get 36 percent, I’m afraid we won’t be able to get 10 percent,” he said. “We have to get this done without shutting off credit for everyone.”

Sounding his campaign theme, Pagliuca spoke about the importance of securing funds for job training, noting that there are currently 320,000 people unemployed in Massachusetts.

“We’ve got to get people trained for jobs in the future,” he said.

In closing remarks, Pagliuca spoke again about the importance of jobs.

“I guarantee I will bring jobs back to Massachusetts,” he said.

Throughout the two-hour forum, local residents and GBIO members also told personal stories and offered moral exhortations to express the importance of these issues, drawing thunderous applause from the audience. Several stories also evoked gasps of shock and disgust at the daily injustices fellow Bostonians suffer.

Ray Geldart explained her $1,200 monthly payments on private student loans—payments that precluded her from pursuing her dream of joining the Peace Corps—and the 13 percent interest rate that brought her $30,000 loan to a quarter of a million dollars.

And Monette Roberson told of a woman in her congregation whose credit card interest rate increased to 39 percent after the death of her mother, forcing her to pay $900 each month in credit card bills.

Frequently cheering and clapping, the audience was clearly excited that the candidates responded so positively to their questions. Reverend Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church, closed event.

“We’re powerful because we’re diverse,” he said. “… We’re diverse, but united in our determination to pursue real and tangible change. We celebrate as descendents of native peoples, freed slaves and immigrants and refugees—our determination will form that more perfect union.”