I attended the debate of the candidates for the 18th Middlesex Representative District which was held this evening at UMass Lowell’s new University Crossing building. The following are the notes I took during the debate. It’s not a verbatim transcript but it gives you a pretty accurate account of who said what:
Chancellor Meehan welcomes large audience and talks about the importance of this legislative district to the University. Mentions this is one of the few majority minority districts in the Commonwealth. University Crossing is a public building to which non University neighbors are welcome. Moderator is Frank Talty. Panelists are Chris Scott of Lowell Sun; Soben Pin of KhmerPost USA; and Phil Geoffroy, Umass Lowell student trustee.
Moderator Frank Talty introduces the candidates: Fred Bahou; Brian Donovan; Jim Leary; Rady Mom; Dave Ouellette; and Paul Ratha Yem. Questions will go to all candidates. Length of time somewhat flexible.
First question by Chris Scott: If you’re elected, would you vote to give Robert DeLeo another term as House Speaker?
Fred Bahou: As an innersoled candidate I’d have to think about it. He’s moved the state forward in a few areas, especially the casino bill which I support. However, I know the probation department was a problem. I’d have to work with our delegation and would have to look at it closely and intuitively.
Brian Donovan: Speaker DeLeo has done a great job. He’s had some issues with DYS and Probation. He was tainted by that. But I would support him. He’s done a good job in other areas.
Jim Leary: I would support Speaker DeLeo. There are issues that need to be addressed but I’d like to sit down with the delegation and the city administration and see what the city’s priorities are.
Rady Mom: I would vote for Mr DeLeo. I look forward to working with everyone in our delegation.
Dave Ouellette: Yes, I would support Mr. DeLeo.
Paul Ratha Yem: I know Mr. DeLeo from when I lived in Winthrop and I support him. My personal relationship with him might be helpful for Lowell.
Next Question by Soben Pin: What is your position on the new courthouse?
Bahou: It was worked on a number of years ago. The current courthouse is beat up. The new court would create an economy around it and it would lead to the creation of new businesses.
Donovan: Should stick with the existing plan. It will be a great boon to the city. It will draw businesses into the area. Current facilities need to be replaced.
Leary: In favor of it but it’s important to be aligned with the city government’s objectives. It’s location will help tie in other parts of the city like Cambodia Town and Umass Lowell. It all works together.
Mom: When I first came to Lowell my bedroom overlooked the Hamilton Canal district. It didn’t look that great. This is an exciting project and the city needs to pursue it.
Ouellette: Is in favor of courthouse. As a gateway city we have to develop all of these areas. We have to connect the Acre and Umass Lowell to all of these projects.
Yem: I’m the secretary of the Cambodia Town committee and we’ve been trying to connect Cambodia Town to the judicial center area and the rest of downtown. There are 340 businesses in Cambodia town with tremendous employment and economic opportunities.
Follow up question by Frank Talty. Mentions the existing courthouses that will be vacated. What should be done with them?
Donovan: It will be expensive to upgrade them. It should be a partnership between the city and state. They’re important parcels so they should be developed.
Leary: Cites conversation with Jim Cooney a neighbor to Superior Courthouse about what a shame it would be to lose it. We should start discussing reuse now.
Mom: I worked near the Juvenile Court house. It’s a beautiful building. We need to work on the funding and should all work together to get the needed funding.
Ouellette: It could be vibrant housing. I’m on the board of Coalition for a Better Acre for housing. We’ve done several successful projects. I’d explore funding and partnerships for that building.
Yem: I love these old buildings. I have experience redeveloping older buildings. We have enough affordable housing so I’d prefer it be used for something besides that.
Bahou: It hasn’t been attended to and it should be preserved but we have to think about what will be most cost effective. I think we’ll have more students moving in to Lowell so housing will tighten up so that might be the best use for it. Says it also might be used for a school admin building for the city of Lowell which would save rent costs for downtown location.
Question by Phil Geoffroy: Asks about state funding for higher education. What would you do to ensure adequate funding for institutions of higher education and to make sure it’s affordable.
Leary: I’ve already done something on it with duel enrollment at Lowell High which lets students there get college credit. My daughter went to the state university of New York system. It was very affordable. Education is what we do in Massachusetts. We have to find a way to make public higher ed in Mass more affordable.
Mom: Education is a priority for all parents (I have 4). If I get elected, I will work with everyone to find resources to help people at all levels.
Ouellette: I’d work to keep state funding coming to Umass Lowell. We want everyone to have a quality education. But we have to be careful because if kids graduating from college have so much debt that they can’t afford a house after graduation, it will cause our next housing glut.
Yem: I’ll find ways to support low and middle class children especially in funding higher education. My daughter started college three days ago. We had to take out loans. I want to help graduates refinance their student loans to lower rates.
Bahou: I have two children in college. The cost is a burden. Other students tell me about having huge debt and trouble finding jobs. It’s a crisis in America. Higher education is one of the most important things we have. Maybe the state’s chapter 70 funding should be extended to higher ed students.
Donovan: Would support funding for state colleges. I would support increased grants for students going to state colleges.
Question by Chris Scott: What’s the root cause of gun violence in the district and what would you do to curtail it.
Mom: Guns are not the issue. It’s the education that we need to empower our youth and to teach our youth to respect life and one another. Lowell is a safe city. But when gunfire happens just up the street from my house there’s something wrong with it. I know the police and the Superintendent are doing their best.
Ouellette: Courts need to follow through with laws already on the books. There’s no fear and that doesn’t deter people. Drug dealing is a root cause. I’ve seen the effect of drugs right here in my neighborhood. We have to teach kids that dealing drugs is not cool.
Yem: Drugs and mental health and a breakdown of family structures are root causes. I would toughen sentences for those who have illegal weapons. We should revisit Truth in Sentencing. Cites weaker gun laws in neighboring states.
Bahou: Guns are hurting our cities. People are afraid. I run a corner store and ask myself how many guns walk in here each week. Guns and gangs are the root cause. Guns are seen as “cool.” Says the courts fail us by giving too many chances to juvenile offenders.
Donovan: Cause of gun violence is the drug trade which is handled by gangs. We used to have a gang unit in the police department and a warrant unit that would look for these guys. We don’t have those units anymore. If I was state rep, I’d find more funding to get more boots on the ground on the police department.
Leary: Root causes are drugs, breakdown of family and economic issues. Three pronged approach: educate young people with school resource officers. Next is more boots on the street to do community policing. Biggest issues is how we appoint judges and how long they serve. We should have term limits for judges.
Soben Pin asks where should Lowell High School be located:
Ouellette: It needs to be researched. It doesn’t belong at South Common because we need all the green space we have. Cawley Stadium would be the best spot if we moved I at all.
Yem: Cawley Stadium is the best location because it’s close to highway and has athletic facilities. I haven’t heard anyone ask the students what they think about the location of the high school. They should be part of the decision making process.
Bahou: There should be multiple conversations. Would it be feasible to have two high schools? I think the high school works in its current location because it’s right between Umass Lowell and Middlesex Community College.
Donovan: I’ve heard $250mil to rehab the current facility. There’s a study underway. There are a lot of students who walk to the current location. We should consider them. The students spend a lot of money downtown. For those reasons I’d prefer keeping it downtown.
Leary: I made the motion to begin this study. The school committee (and me) voted to keep it downtown but the state building authority will do its own study if they decide to help Lowell. You have to align this discussion with the needs of the city over the next couple of decades. I’m not wed to that; I’ll listen to other suggestions but downtown seems best.
Mom: My first thought would be to create a brand new Lowell High but it’s all about funding. This is where the pavement hits the road. If moving the high school would make downtown more vibrant, I’d be for it.
Question by Phil Geoffroy: What are the strengths and weaknesses of this year’s state budget relative to this district?
Yem: I haven’t seen much in this budget that helps the 18th Middlesex District. I’d try to add amendments that provided for capital improvements in the district in the coming years. Also more grant funding for students pursuing higher education.
Bahou: There should be more funding about drugs and drug education. Also about guns. Lottery funding should be used more for Lowell. The formula is unfair.
Donovan: Money came to Lowell this year to support our public schools. This is the most important part of state aid to Lowell. For us to improve our economy, we need a first rate school system. I would advocate for more funding for public schools and for Umass Lowell.
Leary: I’d like to see a two or three year budget so we know for a longer time what our funding will be. Now, it’s too unpredictable from year to year. Lowell pays $8mil in out of district special ed costs. The people getting those services need them but they shouldn’t come directly from the city’s school budget
Mom: He would talk with everyone about it. Stresses that he would be a bridge between the Cambodian community and the rest of the city.
Ouellette: Would find funding for a new sprinkler installation plan he has that would allow landlords to install sprinklers for an affordable price. He cites a lead removal program that give building owner a grant that he repays when the building is sold. This will put all kinds of people to work and will make the housing safer.
Bahou: Unenrolled candidate will be on ballot in November. My parents came here as immigrants in 1957. Was born in “this building” in 1953. Cites involvement in youth activities. Has invested in many properties in this district. He owns his own corner store and is accessible to the community. I understand the interests of small business. We have to follow through with our support of them.
Donovan: Thanks Umass Lowell, the students, and the voters of the district. He will represent them full time. Will work to reduce violence, improve schools, will get increased funding especially for economic development projects.
Leary: Thanks everyone. I’ve been on school committee for 8 years, a devastating time for school funding. Took a lot of tough votes but helped rebuild the school system. I want to connect Cambodia Town with downtown. Umass Lowell is rehabbing part of Lowell. I’d like to be part of that and align Umass Lowell’s objectives with those of the city. We’ve done that with the school system. Education leads you to economic prosperity. Lowell will be a college town but we need a thriving downtown and thriving minidowntowns in each neighborhood.
Mom: I came to this country at age 12, not speaking a word of English. I own and run a therapy business in Cupples Square. My wife and I are raising 4 children here in Lowell. I’m a product of Lowell public schools. Lowell has a great heritage. I want to make sure Lowell is a city where people feel secure. I’ve met many people and have listened to their concerns. Talks about the significance of being first Cambodian representative in Massachusetts. Pledges to work together with everyone.
Ouellette: Thanks everyone. Asks for our vote. Grew up in public housing here in the Acre. Has been married for 32 years living on Cabot Street. Got involved with neighborhood when gunfire erupted outside his house one night. Cites meeting with former police chief who asked someone to be the strong voice for the neighborhood. He’s tried to fill that role. Cites work on North Common, working with UTEC, Habitat for Humanity. I’ve been there and I will still be here. This is what I’ve been doing and this is what I’ll continue doing.
Yem: Explains process of voting with stickers (since he’s not on the ballot). He’s married with children and lives in the Acre. Is a real estate broker with an office in Cupples Square. Is secretary of Cambodia town. Humbly asks for our votes. Says if he’s elected, it won’t be business as usual.