With less than six weeks until the primary election in the race to succeed Edward J. Markey in the US House of Representatives, debate and forum season has arrived in earnest for the seven Democratic candidates vying for the Fifth Congressional District seat, with at least two formal events scheduled this week.
The candidates have been campaigning around the mostly-suburban district since the end of June, when Markey was elected to the US Senate. But a slew of formal forums will give each candidate a chance to differentiate himself or herself from the crowded field of contenders hoping to represent the district that runs from Winthrop to Woburn to Southborough to Holliston.
Given that the Oct. 15 special Democratic primary election is expected to have a relatively low turnout, forums will offer the candidates a chance to connect with the type of involved Democratic voters who are likely to show up at the polls.
All seven candidates are set to attend a panel discussion in Watertown on Tuesday, Sept. 10 sponsored by the Belmont and Watertown Democratic Town Committees, which will be the first formal event to include all of the contenders.
The five candidates who are current elected officials were invited to and are set to attend a separate forum at Lesley University in Cambridge on Thursday Sept. 12, sponsored by an array of groups.
A variety of other forums and debates, in Framingham, Cambridge, Lexington and other communities, are planned in the weeks leading up to the primary.
The seven candidates who will be on the Democratic ballot are: Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian of Waltham, state Representative Carl M. Sciortino of Medford, state Senators Will Brownsberger of Belmont, Katherine Clark of Melrose, and Karen Spilka of Ashland, author Martin Long of Arlington, and Stoneham resident Paul John Maisano, who works in the construction industry.
The Tuesday event at Watertown Middle School at 7 p.m. and will be moderated by former state Senator George Bachrach, who was, himself, once a Congressional candidate.
Bachrach said he hoped to dive deep into the issues and avoid well-hewn talking points from the candidates.
“My hope is it will be more of a conversation than a formal debate, with a lot of back-and-forth and with a lot of the easy answers taken away to avoid some of the political rhetoric and stump speeches,” he said.
The event on Sept. 12, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., is co-sponsored by seven groups: 350 Massachusetts, Better Future Project, Massachusetts Peace Action, the National Organization for Women, Progressive Democrats of America, Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts, and Democratic Socialists of America.
J. Michael Gilbreath, an organizer for Progressive Democrats of America who has helped put together the event, said the format would be aimed at allowing the candidates to expound on specific policy issues. He said the nine questions they planned to ask, split between foreign and domestic policy, were shared with the candidates so they could thoughtfully prepare for what they would say.
In an interview, he said Long and Maisano, who were not invited to the debate, announced their campaigns after the forum had already been planned and, due to time constraints, could not be accommodated. But a spokesman for Long said last week he would be at that event as well, invited or not.
Asked about Democratic Socialists of America co-sponsoring the debate, Gilbreath called them an important organization in progressive circles and said “we see them as being just as valuable a member of the group...as any other organization.”
The Fifth District is heavily Democratic so the winner of that party’s primary is the favorite to win the Dec. 10 special general election.
There are also three Republicans running for the seat: Harvard nanophysics researcher Mike Stopa of Holliston; businessman and attorney Frank J. Addivinola Jr. of Boston; and actuary Tom Tierney of Framingham.
Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian, one of the seven Democrats running, held a policy discussion Wednesday, Sept 4 aimed at working to improve access to mental health treatment as well as the quality of substance abuse treatment.
Koutoujian, who was formerly a state representative, said that addressing issues of mental health and substance abuse have always been important to him, but that they came into starker relief in his current position.
On an average day, the Middlesex Sheriff’s office oversees about 1,500 incarcerated people, many of whom self-report struggles with addiction, he said.
As part of his campaign’s roll out of policy proposals, Koutoujian brought together about ten advocates on the issues. He said one focus of the discussion was on improving access to mental health and substance abuse care.
“This is not just about incarcerated, this is about getting more services out in the community,” he said.
While the sheriff said issues of mental health and substance abuse treatment only part of his platform, he emphasized they resonated with many of the voters he has spoken with over the course of his campaign.
“When I’ve been out knocking doors, this is one of the issues people speak about,” he said.
State Senator Katherine Clark, another one of the seven Democrats running in the Fifth Congressional District, attended an anti-gun violence rally in Boston in late August.
Many of the city and state’s top elected officials attended the rally outside Faneuil Hall, where the overarching messages were pressing Congress to pass stronger gun control legislation and remembering many victims of gun violence by reading their names aloud.
The event was set up under the auspices of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization aimed at curbing gun violence chaired by Mayors Thomas M. Menino of Boston and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York.
The rally included passionate speeches by Menino, Markey, now the state’s junior senator, Senator Elizabeth Warren and others.
Clark, a member of the Legislature’s committee on public safety, attended the event as part of her official duties as a state senator and did not speak at the rally. But in a subsequent interview, she said pushing for expanded gun control legislation would be one of her top priorities if she were elected as a US Representative. She said it was “outrageous” that Congress had not yet passed legisltion mandating expanded background checks for guy buyers.
“It is absolutely is a priority for me in Congress to address” gun violence, Clark said, which she called “a public health crisis.”
With votes in Congress expected on whether to authorize President Obama to use military force against Syria, the issue took center stage in the 5th Congressional District race.
Sciortino said if he were in Congress, he would vote against authorizing the president to strike Syria. A spokesman said that remained his position on Friday.
Obama and top Congressional leaders continue to make the case for a strike after the alleged use of chemical weapons by the forces of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
Koutoujian, and state Senators Brownsberger, Spilka, and Clark were all following the matter and gathering more information on Friday, according to spokesmen. All have expressed varying levels of skepticism about the potential military intervention.
Author Martin Long would "vote against it today," according to a spokesman on Friday.
Paul John Maisano, who works in the construction industry, said last week "at this time" he would not give Obama the authorization to strike Syria if he were in Congress.
A version of this post first appeared in the Globe's Political Intelligence blog.