An increasingly nasty race to fill a vacant state Senate seat spilled into the House chamber yesterday when two Democratic rivals tangled in a loud confrontation that briefly turned physical.
As their colleagues debated the fate of a $280 million deficiency budget, state Representatives Charles A. Murphy of Burlington and Patrick M. Natale of Woburn, who are both hoping to take over the Senate seat vacated last month by Robert A. Havern of Arlington, had other matters to settle.
Murphy said in an interview after the confrontation that he approached Natale in the back of the chamber to talk to him about the race. But the conversation deteriorated, Murphy said, and Natale began accusing him of "saying things about him." He said Natale employed a four-letter word or two and poked his finger at him.
Murphy, who served in the US Marines, said that he asked Natale "not to poke at me" and that at one point he pushed Natale's hand away. But that was the extent of any physical contact during the exchange, Murphy said.
"It wasn't a fight; it's not like we threw down," he said, adding that the episode lasted perhaps 28 seconds. "It was a discussion about an ongoing state Senate race, and we had a disagreement."
But one witness said Murphy had grabbed Natale's finger and bent it. A colleague moved in, admonishing them for scuffling in the House chamber, the witness said.
They separated but continued to throw epithets at each across several rows of desks, until a colleague took Murphy outside and advised him to cool off, the witness said.
Murphy said he was called to the front of the chamber by Speaker Pro-Tempore Thomas M. Petrolati and that he explained what had happened to House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who took no further action.
When a reporter knocked on Natale's office door seeking comment, Natale said "nope" and closed the door.
A woman popped out seconds later to escort a reporter to the corridor outside the lobby, wishing her a good evening and loudly repeating that the representative would have no comment.
Havern has said he is resigning to take a job at a high-powered lobbying firm, ML Strategies.
The party primary to fill his seat is scheduled for Nov. 13. The special election is Dec. 11.
Murphy has a law degree from Vermont Law School and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Natale has a law degree from the Massachusetts School of Law and a master's degree in law from Boston University.
Ken Donnelly, secretary-treasurer of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, is also running for the seat, as is state Representative J. James Marzilli Jr. of Arlington, who was not involved in the confrontation.
"People have always said politics is a full contact sport in Massachusetts, and I guess we have proof of that today," Marzilli said.