With less than a week to go before the primary that will decide the race, three of the four candidates competing for the Fifth Suffolk District's open House seat vied to distinguish themselves during a forum at the Vine Street Community Center last night.
Carlos Henriquez, a former City Hall aide with high-ranking positions at the Kroc Community Center and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, pointed out that he'd lived in Dorchester his entire life, and framed himself as a grassroots son of the district.
Barry Lawton said he was the only candidate with the experience necessary to take state office, and touted his long resume as a legislative aide, a personnel director under the Dukakis administration, a small business owner, and his 22-year stint as a Boston Public School teacher.
Roy Owens focused his message around his faith-based politics, identifying himself at the outset as the only anti-abortion, family values candidate.
All of the candidates have run for office before, but with no incumbent (Rep. Marie St. Fleur left office in June to work for the Mayor Thomas Menino as chief of advocacy and strategic development), the stakes are high. The district includes parts of Dorchester and Roxbury.
When asked about how he'd respond to neighborhood violence in light of the recent slaying of Richel Nova, Owens said the problem is that religious communities are "locked out of the process," adding, "until the church gets involved, nothing's ever going to change."
Lawton said it was a problem with leadership, citing funding cuts to programs like early education and the Shannon grants, which he said he'd restore.
"I look at this community as a lawn. When there's an egregious crime, the lawnmowers come out. They have the vigils, they have the press conferences, and nothing is produced after that. They cut the lawn, and create the impression that there's tranquility," Lawton said. "My plan is to have a short term plan to mow the grass, and a long-term plan to cut it off at the root."
Henriquez cited education and lowering the dropout rate as ways to combat youth violence, and said he'd set up support and training programs for both students and their parents. He added that if elected, he'd reach out to schools, students, community centers and local Boston police district captains, to get their input.
For a question about education, Owens focused on curriculum, saying that gay identities were discussed openly in public schools, but that religious discussion was forbidden.
Lawton and Henriquez concentrated on funding. Lawton said he supports "any school that works," including charter schools, pilot schools and public schools, and said that funding should go to successful institutions, "and not those schools that are producing mediocrity."
Henriquez criticized this approach. "It's scary for me to hear a candidate talk about funding for a school, and not be willing to fund a struggling school," he said. "I feel we have to invest in all of our students."
Henriquez and Lawton also clashed on promoting small businesses. Henriquez supports tax incentives that would encourage local hiring, while Lawton called the incentives "corporate welfare."
Perhaps the most telling moment was at the end of the forum, when the candidates were invited to ask one another questions. Lawton asked his opponents if they knew how a law is made. Owens asked both candidates how they reconciled their support of abortion rights and gay marriage with their faith.
Minutes after Lawton had poked fun at Owens' rhetoric and his suit, Henriquez asked him if he planned on ridiculing his constituents.
Owens and Lawton have competed for the seat before, and Henriquez unsuccessfully ran against long-time City Councilor Chuck Turner twice. Althea Garrison, who did not appear at last night's hearing, held the seat for a term as a Republican, after successfully challenging the nomination papers of her Democratic rival, Nelson Merced, in 1992. This year, she's running as a Democrat.
With no Republicans in the race, Tuesday's primary will determine the victor.