Policy Talk Takes Center Stage

October 19, 2018 GMT

FITCHBURG -- Policy talk took central stage at a 3rd Congressional District debate Thursday night as candidates navigated questions ranging from how to solve the opioid epidemic to the growth of student-loan debt.

Democratic nominee Lori Trahan, Republican nominee Rick Green and independent candidate Mike Mullen, who was appearing in a general-election debate for the first time, focused mostly on the topics at hand, rarely attacking one another or engaging in rebuttals. Many of the questions at the debate -- hosted at Fitchburg State University by the Elect North Central Coalition and partners including The Sun and the Sentinel & Enterprise -- focused specifically on federal legislation.

Candidates shared stances on the federal budget deficit (Green said he will not vote for any budget that adds to the national debt, Trahan criticized Republican tax cuts that added to the debt and Mullen said the issue is a problem but that deficit spending has some utility), on energy infrastructure (Green said if elected, he would help advocate for the state legislation to lower energy costs, while Trahan and Mullen called for investment in renewable energy) and on several other topics.

The only major back-and-forth came during a question about how to restore civility in Washington. During her answer, Trahan called for campaign-finance reform as a way to ensure voters’ voices are heard and specifically called out Green.

“Money in politics is a huge problem,” Trahan said. “There’s a lot of corporate money in this system. In fact, my opponent here wants to see more corporate money in our election. That’s the corruptive influence we need to get out of our democracy.”

Trahan’s criticism of Green did not go into detail, but it is likely a reference to the Republican candidate’s business and the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, an organization he founded. Earlier this year, Green’s company, 1A Auto, was a plaintiff in a case challenging a Massachusetts law that blocks corporate donations to political candidates. The state Supreme Judicial Court upheld the law, and the plaintiffs are mulling a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance is also suing the state over a law requiring it to disclose its top donors on advertisements.

Given a chance to rebut Trahan’s remarks during the debate, Green did not answer directly. He noted the “irony” that the first direct attack of the night came during a question about civility, then spoke about his business experience conducting negotiations to “make everybody win.”

The two also disagreed on immigration. Green said he supports treating undocumented immigrants humanely, but that they should “go to the back of the line” seeking permanent residence behind legal immigrants and that so-called sanctuary cities have violated the “rule of law.” Trahan said those communities ensure that lawbreakers are punished and that anti-immigrant sentiment is damaging to the country.

“This is the job of Congress,” Trahan said. “This is why you send people down there, roll up your sleeves, and find common ground on what’s going to work for our future. We are a country of immigrants.”

Many of Mullen’s answered included numerous policy details. When asked about trade agreements, he worked in references to automation, China joining the World Trade Organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and tariffs during a two-minute answer.

Mullen noted that he was running as an independent candidate specifically to counter what he described as damaging effects of the two-party system.

“It’s been too divisive,” Mullen said. “The party structure itself creates that ‘us-versus-them’ (attitude) as well as the means to finance that.”

Several of the questions saw Trahan and Green rehash points familiar to those who have seen them speak on the campaign trail before. Asked about how to grapple with growing student debt, Trahan stressed the importance of vocational schools and community colleges and said an “arms race” of amenities at private institutions was driving up excessive costs. Green again said his experience overseeing a distribution makes him “uniquely qualified” to disrupt the trade of fentanyl.

The Republican candidate had a new bit of information to share on two other topics, though. When discussing opioids, he had previously said he’d appoint a staffer to focus exclusively on the issue, and on Thursday night, Green said he already did so. He also said, if elected, he would personally ensure Route 2 -- a state highway -- is expanded to six lanes, building on previous promises to fix the Concord rotary.

Another debate is scheduled for 3rd District candidates next Tuesday night in Haverhill.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.