Democratic US Senate debate from UMass Lowell, October 4, 2011

In Debate Hall

Fifteen minutes before start time; hall is full. Stage set up with six semi-easy chairs for candidates to the right. Each chair separated by a small wooden end table. There’s a podium for the moderator slightly to the left of center stage and two long banquet tables with blue skirting for the student questioners. A large screen hovers high above the stage on which video images from the TV feed will be projected. That screen is flanked by two large banners. Each says Boston Herald and University Massachusetts Lowell present US Senate Debate, October 4, 2011.

If you’re on Twitter, use #UMLdebate hashtag to submite questions and follow events in the hall.

Debate Begins

Chancellor Meehan takes stage, asks folks to restrict applause. Invites everyone to post debate gathering at UML Inn and Conference Center.

Candidates take stage. Facing crowd from left to right: Conroy, DeFranco, Khazei, Massie, Robinson and Warren.

7:01 pm: Chancellor Meehan opens with welcoming remarks to audience and webviewers. Mentions “live blogging” and Twitter coverage. Says how critical 2012 election will be. Urgest students to participate. Giving some background on UMass Lowell.

Explains format: Students, focus group, Herald focus group, Twitter, etc. Flexible format using discretion with follow-up questions and a 10 second per answer lightning round. Now introducing the student questioners (The “freshman” questioner is an 8 year Army veteran of 82nd AD and 7th SF Group with Bronze Star).

Candidates all wearing blue suits including DeFranco except Warren who has a red jacket over black pants. Now introducing candidates; all getting a lot of applause. Warren will be last due to seating.

First Round of Questions

What makes you think you can win? to Conroy. Calls himself best hope to beat Scott Brown; to give voice to all those who have felt disenfranchised. Wants to compare his voting record as a state rep to Scott Brown’s. Calls Brown and “empty suit with an empty list” of accomplishments.

DeFranco answering same question. Says her Federal law practice makes her used to being underdog. Stresses strength in Essex County. Says Essex South Register of Deeds John O’Brien has endorsed her.

Khazei says 20 year record of grass roots. Says Brown has delivered nothing. Senate needs to fix what’s broken by using what’s working here in Massachusetts.

Massie says long history of underdog candidates in beginning doing very well in end. Cites Deval Patrick and Barack Obama and Scott Brown. Says its important for all candidates to be given attention. Says once his record is known he will be nominee.

Robinson says his strength is he’s not a career politician. He’s an engineer with a long record of getting things done. Will push for little or no long term capital gains tax on IPOs.

Meehan reframes question to Warren, “is the race already over?” Warren says Forbes magazine names Scott Brown “Wall STreet’s favorite senator” and that’s not an award I’m likely to get. It’s all about America’s middle class families. This is my life’s work. I’ve researched it, written about it, gone to Washington to work on it. It’s all about middle class families.

Lightning Round

Lightning Round: Brown paid for law school by posing in Cosmo. How did you pay? Warren says “Well I kept my clothes on.” Then says she went to a public university, worked, took out jobs, etc. The others all say about the same, loans, help for parents, jobs, spouses, etc.

Next round: Question about recent KIA in Afghanistan. To DeFranco, says absolutely withdraw by end of 2012. Khazei says shares condolences with family of deceased Mass soldier; says to audience we need to get out within a year, it doesn’t make sense. We can use the money here. Massie agrees with rapid withdrawal then shifts to how we treat veterans. New GI bill good, concerned about treatment for brain injuries and homelessness of vets. Robinson says “mission has been accomplished in Afghanistan” and we should come home. Says he won’t vote for any more wars like that. Warren says all three brothers served in military so understands how good our military is. Says elected officials have to use our military wisely and effectively. Says the lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq is we should never go to war without being willing to pay for it; we put the cost on a credit card. We must be careful with troops and we must pay for it. All of us go to war or none of us go to war. Conroy says we should withdraw but do it prudently. Compares money spent in Afghanistan to money spent in US on education. Says economic security as important as military security.

Meehan followup: Has President O been too slow to get us out of Afghanistan: all answer yes.

Next question: Should marijuana be legalized? Khazei: by the way, “I did inhale and I did enjoy it.” Supports medical MJ but not full legalization. Massie concurs. Robinson says it should be legalized and sold like alcohol to big applause. Warren says not legalized. Conroy says same. DeFranco says maybe eventually but says alcohol is addictive too. Says resources should be devoted to substance abuse treatment.

Questions from the internet

What would you do to create jobs? Massie says supports jobs bill; long term must create innovation economy which is path to future. Cites relevant experience. Robinson supports jobs bill, supports reducing cap gains on IPOs. Says we should tie tax rate of very wealthy to how well economy is doing. If unemployment is low, taxes low and converse. Warren supports jobs bill. Says we need to put people to work right now on roads and bridges. They should be working not on unemployment. Role of regulation works against small business owners (calls them “job creators”). Cites one page mortgage disclosure sheet that would help homeowners and business borrowers. Conroy supports jobs program. Mentions his summer campaign walk, meeting a guy hoping for a one day job so he could buy food for family. DeFranco supports the plan but says it’s not bold enough. Says should invest more money in green jobs. Says we ran deficit to win WWII, we should do the same now. Khazei says Washington is broken; high unemployment and nothing is getting done. Says payroll tax cut not good enough. Rather spend money directly on jobs.

What super hero would you be and why? Robinson says Incredible Hulk for obvious reasons. Warren is Wonder Woman. Conroy says Captain America. DeFranco says half of the Wonder Twins. Khazei says The Flash. Massie says Superman.

Focus group question: “Wall Street is central to economy but threatens to destroy the economy? How do you deal with it?” Warren says I’ve been trying to do exactly that; fought with largest banking institutions and even our own government. You have to be willing to take the fight directly to Wall Street and to Washington and fight for middle class families. By organizing and fighting, you can make something happen. Conroy cites “creative tension” in America; democracy v capitalism that has to be balanced. Now we’re out of balance. Not enough oversight of capitalism. DeFranco says she fights Federal government for a living; the David v Goliath battle everyday. Khazei says would urge Obama to appoint Elizabeth Warren head of Consumer Bureau. Have to focus on creating jobs. Massie says he’s a social justice activist who has spent his whole career on this. Our economy must be sustainable and just. Robinson returns to his tax proposal: if you mess up the economy, your taxes will go up.

Health Care Question

How will you protect funding for Planned Parenthood (online question from UML student). Conroy says always been a huge advocate of woman’s right to choose and would continue that. DeFranco says she has a strong record for fighting for woman’s right to choose. Khazei says Brown originally voted to defund Planned Parenthood but switched his vote when he got heat from Massachusetts. Says we all have to put pressure on leaders in DC. Massie cites his past health problems so understands what it’s like to be deprived medical care. He would fight against that. Robinson agrees. Warren says how do you best protect Planned Parenthood. What worries her is how many people are timid about supporting it. You have to be a leader and say it clearly and often.

Another lighting round: Every driven under influence of alcohol? All answer no.

Question mentions Weiner-gate, pictures on Twitter and then lied about it. How would you handle a mistake? Khazei says we all make mistakes, have to own up to it and improve in the future. Massie says began as a minister, we’re all flawed, we have to admit our mistakes. Robinson says would admit to it. Warren says if she had to admit to something in front of microphones, she’d do it by herself and not have family member join me. Conroy says would not do it again. DeFranco says she’d do what she tells her legal clients.

Question: What do you think of the “Occupy” protests: Massie says its a great idea. When people are deeply frustrated, that’s what they should do. Robinson: supports them as long as keep it peaceful. Warren says everyone has to follow the law as a start, but no one understands the frustration more than she does. Wall street broke this country and there has been no accountability even after 3 years. Conroy applauds their civic engagement and wants to represent them and all the other disenfranchised folks. DeFranco supports them; we have a long history of peaceful protest arrests. It’s democracy. Khazei says he talked to them yesterday and was inspired. They feel that Washington doesn’t get it and Wall Street needs to be held accountable.

Deficit reduction questions

Question by Marty Meehan. “Did President Obama make a mistake when he compromised on the Bush tax cuts?” and if it was a mistake, did you speak out against it?

Warren says it’s not just about the money but about our values. GE pays nothing in taxes but we tell students to take on more debt to pay for education or seniors get benefits cut. It’s a mistake to keep the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. It’s a values question: tax cuts for those who have already made it vs money better spent elsewhere. Conroy says he spoke out against it. If we end Bush tax cuts and the two wars, we’d be able to balance the budget. DeFranco says it was a mistake and she spoke out about it, but the press wasn’t calling her at the time. Says Obama capitulated. Khazei says it was a mistake but other things were being held hostage so understands why. Massie says money is corrupting politics of both parties (one already bought; the other rented out). Massie asks all candidates, especially Warren to reject PAC money. Robinson agrees to not take PAC money.

Question about college debt: Do you support or oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. DeFranco supports it, but says children are here through no fault or their own, we don’t want them to be a permanent underclass. Bigger question is will Congress ever get serious about immigration reform. Shouldn’t make children scapegoats for parents or faulure of political system. Khazei supports it, says we should have passed the Dream Act which Scott Brown voted against. Says we’re not going to send them back. Give them a reasonable road to citizenship. Massie quotes George Washington as saying the future of US depended on immigration. Supports Dream Act and instate. Robinson supports it, saying our economy depends on undocumented immigrants. Warren supports instate tuition and the Dream Act. Says there’s a third part: we need paths for citizenship so we can retain talent. Immigration is what makes us special. It’s part of what gives us strength. It’s the American story, weaving together in new ways. Immigration is one of the best things America has going for it. Conroy has supported it in the legislature. Says we need fundamental immigration reform.

More debate questions

Housing question: How do you help young people stay here when they can’t afford to buy a home? Khazei says higher ed is great asset. We need a home insurance program that protects against defaults. We should help people refinance to lower rates. Also promote new business startups. Massie says need good home, schools, doctors and jobs. Need all four. Scott Brown has voted against all four. We need multiple types of housing like owner occupied multifamily. Robinson says bring in jobs that provide enough income to be able to afford to live here. Warren says we have a broken housing market. 250000 families underwater, 40000 already foreclosed, we can’t get this cleared out. There’s no accountability in the system. Three years ago modest approaches might have headed it off. We can’t restart economy nationally until we seriously address housing, to level it out. Conroy gives examples of what’s being done at statehouse: keeping doctors here through loan forgiveness; more affordable housing; get more Federal discretionary money here, not eliminate it. DeFranco says jobs are the only solution, especially good union jobs. Would support “employee free choice act”.

Two lightning round questions: One thing done to improve our state in past year. Massie has spent past year talking about sustainability and climate change around the state. Robinson has spent all of this time campaigning. Warren spent a year building a consumer financial protection bureau (loud applause) so people are less likely to get gouged on credit cars, mortgages, says it’s going to be a good agency. Conroy has held two jobs, one in private sector, the other as state rep helping constituents every day. DeFranco says volunteer commissioner on Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. Khazei cites “Be the Change” and making sure that all who want to serve in Americorp can.

Mandatory service question: Robinson says should be manditory training only and woman should be in infantry if they want. Warren says volunteer military works best. Those who volunteer, women should be in combat arms because they’re just as tough as men. Conroy supports mandatory service for everyone, wouldn’t preclude women from combat. DeFranco opposed to mandatory service, women should be in combat. Khazei has built much of his life trying to build a national service structure, but it should be a choice. If we made it available, people would serve. Women in combat is OK. Massie, no mandatory, yes to women in combat

Closing Statements

Warren: Talked a lot about fighting for America’s middle class. My family scraped by until dad had a heart attack. Bills piled up. I worked hard for everything I got. But I grew up in an America of opportunity. We have now lost our way. Washington is rigged for the big guys. That’s not right. We have a choice: more subsidies to those who have already made it big or support for the kids who are going to make it big. Join me as and make this part of a movement.

Khazei: Who will be the most effective leader for Massachusetts in Washington. If you want to settle for status quo, Washington will get its way. If you’re part of the silent majority and push special interest money out of politics. I spent a lifetime helping people. We can put the American dream back in the hands of the American people

Robinson: Just a regular American running for the US Senate. An engineer with a history of solving problems. Fix economy and bring jobs back. Energy is the next critical problem to address.

DeFranco: In this race to fight for the people vs the powerful. I have a track record of jumping in and winning. No poll testing the waters and high priced consultants. I have support of real people. I ask for your support.

Conroy: People want leadership; a leader who can create new jobs. Scott Brown is in the way of our attainment of this goal. Says he’s already defeated a popular Republican incumbent and can do it again.

Massie: It’s easy to be discouraged but remember we live in the United States. We should be leading the new economy. We need a locomotive in the Senate, not a caboose like Scott Brown. For America to be great, Massachusetts must be great.

End of debate. 8:38 pm

Post Debate Observations

I just read through my previous nine posts which were composed and uploaded from my laptop within the debate hall. Once again I proclaim that the most valuable course I had in high school was typing. Because of that I was able to capture much of what the candidates said in real time in those posts, so I don’t have anything more to add to that.

Having withstood the temptation to visit the post-debate parties at Garcia Brogans and at the Inn and Conference Center, I’ll now try to offer some analysis while it’s all fresh in my mind. Much to the dismay of the other candidates, the biggest story tonight was Elizabeth Warren. As the Herald journalist teased in the pre-debate video introduction, this would be Warren’s first-ever political debate. I thought she did very well – and I won’t even say “considering it was her first debate . . .” – because she did do very well period. She is very bright and very comfortable speaking in public. She showed no hesitation or nervousness. A few of her responses bordered on being too professorial when, in a one-minute answer format, short, punchy answers work best. But that was barely noticeable. What was noticeable was her strict adherence to the theme of fighting for middle class families. When other politicians say it, it sounds like a talking point; when Elizabeth Warren says it, you know she means it. While there was no mixing it up between candidates tonight, the kind of impromptu exchanges that often define an entire candidacy, having seen Warren mix it up with some House Committee chair on CSPAN back during the summer, I’m guessing she’ll handle that phase of political debating with ease once it arises. So Elizabeth Warren passed her first debate test; she’ll only get better.

While Warren had high expectations going in, one candidate who had low expectations and greatly exceeded them was Marisa DeFranco. An immigration attorney from the North Shore who has never ran for public office, DeFranco repeatedly showed a combativeness that must serve her clients well. Her answers were direct without a hint of nuance. While she said the same thing as several of the other candidates, she said it with greater passion and force and so seemed stronger. But, while extreme positions play well from the stage, in the cold light of day many folks understand that these issues are all exceeding complicated and solutions are elusive so I’m not sure how much truly committed support DeFranco picked up tonight. Still, she certainly showed that she belonged on the stage.

Bob Massie gave DeFranco some competition in the passionate answer department. Massie just exudes sincerity and good-heartedness and so he can make pointed comments about Scott Brown or Washington and not risk being seen as divisive. Maybe this is a small thing, but I remember Massie as the Democratic nominee for Lt Governor back in 1994, the year in which Bill Weld overwhelmingly won reelection (Mark Roosevelt was the gubernatorial nominee). I know that Massie had some intervening health problems (he talked about them on the stage), but there’s a 16 year gap between running for Lt Gov and running for US Senate, and that might be a distraction for some. Of course, one good thing about that 1994 election was Ted Kennedy’s trouncing of Mitt Romney in that year’s US Senate race.

Herb Robinson, a retired engineer, seemed like a pleasant enough fellow who had some interesting ideas, but if having interesting ideas was a winning qualification for a US Senate candidate, there wouldn’t be just 6 in the race, there’d be about 60,000. Robinson has to bring something more than interesting and good ideas to this race to be competitive.

Tom Conroy is a state representative with a wide range of interesting experiences. He came across as a polished, yet sincere, campaigner who had a clear strategy of how to present himself to the voters. He succeeded in doing that and has to be judged to be one of the chief competitors in the “alternative to Elizabeth Warren” contest within a contest.

The other in that category, of course, is Alan Khazei, who ran for this Senate seat in the special election two years ago. Khazei’s history with City Year gives him a great story and presumably an army of committed campaign volunteers. With our current hard times following an era of abuse and excess by Wall Street and corporate America, Khazei’s background in volunteer, community-oriented organizations could ignite the imagination of the electorate. Because he has already run for this office once before, I would think he will be seen as the main alternative to Elizabeth Warren.

Speaking of Warren, she finds herself in an enviable but awkward position. Enviable in that she’s the clear front runner in a crowded field with no one, if the UML-Herald poll is accurate, even close to her. It’s awkward because (1) if she acts like she’s the presumptive nominee, voters will sense it and her big lead will evaporate and (2) as any sports fan knows, with a big lead you tend to let up on the gas and often your opponent will catch up. However, note I used the singular of “opponent” – Warren greatly benefits from the crowded field. Everyone else gets lost in the shuffle of words until it’s Warren’s turn. That’s when everyone tunes in. If it were Khazei v Warren or Conroy v Warren, it would be a different race, although I assume Warren would still be the favorite.

A few words about the format and the logistics: I thought this was a wonderful debate, partly because of the quality performances of the candidates, but also because the format, which had a variety of question types and time limits, did not get in the way of the exchange of ideas. Everything moved smoothly. Sure, it would have been nice to give people unlimited time to talk about taxes or health care or any other issue, but that’s not practical given the time constraints and the presence of six candidates. Working with those limitations, the UML people did a great job with this event and that was certainly true when it came to the choice of moderator. Marty Meehan may have served in Congress for 14 years, but he’s immersed himself in politics his entire life. He showed a comfort level with the content, the stage, the needs of the candidates and ran the 90 minute debate flawlessly.
I can’t end without pointing out the highly ironic slip of the tongue that occurred when one of the student questioners, after being given the floor by Meehan, replied “Thank you, Senator” which drew a laugh from everyone, Marty included. (Note to those who have lived in a bubble devoid of politics for the past decade plus, Marty was – and still may be – interested in serving in the US Senate).

Finally, thanks to all the folks at UMass Lowell who gave local citizen journalists like me and Lynne from Left in Lowell and Cliff from Right Side of Lowell and David from Blue Mass Group access that was co-equal to the professionals from the mainstream media. Thanks also to Jack Mitchell for capturing some video of the debate. My seat, while right up front, was in defilade to the stage so my video camera would have gone unused. Before the event began, I tossed it to Jack who filled it with clips of the candidates speaking (They’ll be posted tomorrow).