Campaign 2010 | THE GOVERNOR’S RACE

No debate on this: Forums have been plentiful this year

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / October 27, 2010

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Say what you want about the disappointments of this year’s governor’s race. But don’t complain that the candidates did not talk about the issues.

From property taxes to budget deficits, Big Dig finances and Green Line expansion, health care provider payments and state pension fund investment, they talked and talked and talked some more.

The candidates met in 19 — count ’em! — debates and forums, broadcast on radio and television from Pittsfield to Provincetown. They were tweeted and liveblogged, analyzed on cable, dissected in the papers, and rehashed on the talk shows. Then the clips were posted on YouTube.

Many debate proponents are pleased.

“The debates . . . provide an opportunity for interested citizens to see in real time . . . as close to extemporaneous dialogue and discussion as people will see in the campaigns,’’ said Paul Kirk, a former interim US senator, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and cofounder of the Commission on Presidential Debates. “For the most part, they’ve had sharp moderators who understand what the issues are and aren’t fearful about drilling down and following up.’’

In many campaigns, incumbents limit debates because they do not want to give free airtime to their lesser-known challengers and because they fear being put on the defensive. One reason for this year’s bumper crop was that Governor Deval Patrick, seeking a second term after a succession of missteps and amid a deep recession, saw the debates as an opportunity to change the conversation.

“There are a lot of races this year, a lot of information going to voters — and we’re coming off a special election — so there have been a lot of elections back to back,’’ said Sydney Asbury, Patrick’s campaign manager. “We saw these forums and debates as an opportunity to deliver a message around the governor’s record.’’

And the campaign of Patrick’s main challenger, Republican Charles D. Baker, leaped at the opportunity to introduce the candidate to voters.

“This election is very important, and there are real differences . . . on which way Massachusetts should go,’’ said Rick Gorka, Baker’s spokesman. “It’s an opportunity for voters to get to see Charlie, hear what he has to say, and make a decision based upon what they’ve heard.’’

One forum focused on seniors’ issues, another on health care providers, another on green energy. Still another was devoted to Cape Wind. There was a Western Massachusetts debate, a South Coast debate, and a forum on disability issues at the Perkins School for the Blind. Sometimes there were two in one day, leaving little time for campaigning — or even debate preparation.

For the advocacy groups hosting the forums, the events offered an opportunity to engage directly with candidates. A coalition of groups that work with urban youth came together to sponsor a forum on youth issues and urban violence at English High School after they realized that none of the candidates addressed those issues on their websites. About 400 students from a number of cities attended, along with 100 adults, and the students posed questions to three of the four candidates based on their own life experiences and pressed them on whether they would support specific initiatives.

“It was very exciting for them to work with adults in organizing the event, and in getting their friends to come; it was a very moving experience,’’ said Emmett Folgert, director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, one of the sponsors.

The debates were also unusual because most of them included two candidates who were not nominated by the major political parties: independent Timothy P. Cahill and Green-Rainbow Party nominee Jill Stein.

Cahill, whose long-shot campaign was upended when his running mate and several key campaign aides deserted him, was invited to all of the forums, offering him an unusual opportunity to get his message across.

“When you are doing them day after day or a couple of times a week, you are in that mode, you are up on the issues,’’ said Amy Birmingham, Cahill’s spokeswoman.

Stein was invited to all but three of the 19 discussions, even though she registers in the low single digits in polls.

Daryl Sprague, Stein’s campaign manager, said that he is disappointed that Stein was left out of two radio forums and the biotech debate and that other media coverage “hasn’t been that great.’’ He also said Stein remains disadvantaged by the other candidates’ greater spending on television ads. But he conceded, “I would say there have been a good number of forums and opportunities for voters to hear the candidates in person.’’

Not everyone is sure all this talk has truly improved democracy. Dan Payne, a Democratic political analyst, said too many debates can diminish the importance of all of them.

“The candidates know each other’s lines, and sometimes they try to anticipate — ‘Oh, so-and-so is going to say this,’ ’’ he said. “Debates are not really debates. They are sparring sessions about one or the other candidate’s rhetoric.’’

Todd Domke, a Republican political analyst, said the discussions, while multitudinous, have been shockingly dull.

“If you look at all of the debates and boiled them down to the basic points of what they’re saying, you would basically have a two-hour debate,’’ he said.

“I don’t think anybody will look back with nostalgia and say, ‘Remember the campaign of 2010, when we had those great debates?’ ’’ he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at