Candidates spar on abortion issue

Foreign policy sidelined, as debate centers on support for health care overhaul

By Matt Viser and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / December 2, 2009

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A staid primary campaign for US Senate turned testy last night, as Attorney General Martha Coakley cited her gender in an unusually pointed personalization of the abortion issue and US Representative Michael Capuano accused Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca of taking a position on health care that would lead poor women to seek abortions in alleyways.

The sharp exchange, over how to balance all four Democratic candidates’ support for abortion rights with their professed support for a health care overhaul, overshadowed foreign policy on a night when the nation’s attention was focused on President Obama’s much-anticipated speech on Afghanistan. Pagliuca repeatedly said he was the only reliable vote in favor of a health care overhaul and criticized Capuano’s claims as a personal attack.

Coakley and Capuano said they would support health care legislation only if it does not include new restrictions on insurance coverage of abortion; Pagliuca, as well as City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, said they would support any version of health care legislation that is supported by the Democratic majority in Congress.

The Democratic and Republican primaries are next Tuesday, and the two party nominees will face off in a final election Jan. 19. The candidates are vying to win a seat long held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August.

In the most aggressively fought debate in the short campaign, each of the four candidates said they were reluctant to send more troops to Afghanistan, even though they knew Obama was about to propose doing exactly that and even though the move is supported by the state’s senior senator, John F. Kerry.

Coakley used words like mired and quagmire while discussing Afghanistan and said, “I am distressed that we seem to be ignoring history in Vietnam.’’

And Capuano said: “Our mission is accomplished. We should learn how to declare victory.’’

The debate featured the rawest exchange yet between the four candidates, with a feisty Capuano at the center of most of the hard-edged back and forths.

Showing a debating style honed in the tough politics of Somerville, he directly challenged Pagliuca and Coakley at several points during the forum, leading Pagliuca to criticize him for personal attacks.

Coakley, who has been criticized for a lack of passion in the campaign, offered a rare display of her personal side. She talked about making difficult medical choices when her mother was dying of leukemia, said her own family has had to cut back on restaurant dining because of the recession, and defended her personal finances, which have raised questions because she has disclosed remarkably low savings in her bank accounts.

Pagliuca touted his private-sector experience creating jobs, but the wealthy businessman was put on the defensive by both Coakley and Capuano.

Khazei largely stayed out of the fray, but in doing so was less visible than in a previous televised debate in October, at which he was accused of talking too much.

The heated exchange over health care last night was set off when Pagliuca reiterated his oft-stated insistence that he would be the most reliable supporter of health care legislation among the four Democratic candidates. That prompted a sharp retort from Coakley.

“Steve, it’s personal with me,’’ Coakley said. “And it’s personal with every woman who’s in this, who’s watching this.’’

“It’s personal with me, too,’’ Pagliuca responded. “We have 45,000 people dying because they have no access to insurance. That’s the greater good.’’

Capuano then interjected and sharply rebuked Pagliuca, for both his television ads and for his political view.

“And by the way Mr. Pagliuca,’’ Capuano said. “Have you ever known a poor woman who was forced to choose for an abortion without health care coverage? Have you ever known one?’’

“Yes, I have,’’ Pagliuca responded.

“So have I. And you would send them back to the alleys of America?’’ Capuano said.

“Poor women don’t deserve to be treated that way, and I’m sorry that you feel that way.’’

Khazei, attempted to take the high road, saying: “This whole discussion is off base. We all are prochoice and want universal health care.’’

One notable disagreement came over the USA Patriot Act, a law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that gave the government sweeping new surveillance and regulatory powers to fight terrorism.

Capuano, who has made his vote against the Patriot Act a key issue in his campaign, sharply criticized Coakley for suggesting that the controversial law could be rewritten in a way that would protect civil liberties but at the same time protect the security of Americans.

When each candidate was asked if they would vote on the extension of the law, Coakley did not give a yes or no answer, prompting Capuano to charge she was “on both sides of this particular issue.’’ At one point while she was talking, Capuano was in the background, looking skyward.

“I heard three nos, and I wasn’t sure what the other one was,’’ Capuano said. “The issue of trying to somehow split the baby and come up with a civil liberty half way, I don’t see how that can possibly be done, and I think that’s a nice answer, but it doesn’t work.’’

Coakley responded that there had to be a balance between law enforcement and civil liberties. But Capuano objected to that.

“The Patriot Act takes away civil liberties, unequivocally,’’ Capuano said. “It’s not about protecting Americans; it’s about giving the terrorists a victory by . . . giving away our civil liberties.’’

Following the debate, Coakley’s aides said she would oppose reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

All of the candidates said they supported a $20 million federal appropriation for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

None was supportive of the job performance of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Asked what personal changes they have made as a result of the recession, the candidates offered a window into their own homes: Capuano said he changed lightbulbs to be more energy and cost efficient; Pagliuca said he is giving more of his time and money to charity; Khazei said he is increasing his charitable giving and reducing gift-giving at home; and Coakley said she and her husband are cooking more often.

A third, and final, televised debate is scheduled for tonight at 7 on New England Cable News, WGBH-TV, and WBUR-FM and is being cosponsored by the Globe.

Matt Viser can be reached at Frank Phillips can be reached at