Democratic candidates vying to replace Scott Brown in the state Senate debated issues such as health care reform and casino gambling at a forum Monday night in Needham, but it was the issue of political ethics that drew the harshest exchange,
State Rep. Lida Harkins of Needham accused her primary opponent, Dr. Peter Smulowitz, of engaging in “gutter politics’' for his suggestion in campaign literature that she failed to distance herself from three speakers of the state House of Representatives driven from power by ethics problems in the last 14 years.
“You have been trying to tarnish me due to the personal failures of two previous speakers,” said Harkins, a legislator since 1989. “I resent very much you taking my reputation and over 30 years of service to try and imply that I have done something unethical and wrong, and you are trying to tarnish my rep for your own gain. This is gutter politics.”
But Smulowitz, also of Needham, stood by his claim that Harkins failed to speak out against former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who left office last year after being indicted on federal corruption charges. And he reiterated a charge that Harkins took campaign money from DiMasi amd two other speakers driven from office for questionable conduct.
“Nothing we have said is misleading. It is all factual,” Smulowitz responded. “The simple fact is that my Democratic opponent took campaign money from three separate speakers who were indicted, and that’s not bad enough, the money wasn’t given back after they were indicted. That is only a fact.”
Harkins shot back that the claims amounted to a “bald-faced lie.”
The heated exchanged came as about 50 people looked on at the forum sponsored by the Needham chapter of the League of Women Voters at the Broadmeadow School.
Harkins and Smulowitz face off in an April 13 primary to determine who will run against Republican state Rep. Richard Ross of Wrentham for the Senate seat vacated by Brown when he won election to the U.S. Senate earlier this year. The general election is scheduled for May 11.
The Senate district includes portions of Norfolk, Middlesex and Bristol counties.
The wide-ranging debate Monday also included exchanges about health care reform and casino gambling.
Smulowitz, an emergency room physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, said health care was “an issue I could talk about all night.
“We have to rebuild the system around primary care, and we have to contain costs,” he said.
Though Harkins agreed, she responded with a jab at Smulowitz’s qualification to effect reform.
“Physicians should be at the table [for the discussion], but I don’t think they should be driving the debate,” she said.
The candidates differed on casino gambling in the state.
Harkins, a previous opponent to gambling in Massachussetts, said she recently changed her mind, seeing it as a much-needed bill to create jobs. House Speaker Robert DeLeo last week proposed legislation calling for two resort casinos in the state along with slot machines at Massachusetts race tracks.
"I thought it would have a negative impact on local aid, but having visited every part of this district, job creation and economy have to be the number one issue,” Harkins said. “I want to better any gambling bill that comes before us. I want to make sure that those jobs are constructed by Massachusetts workers.”
Smulowitz is opposed to casino gambling in Massachusetts.
“There are huge impacts from casinos,’’ he said. “ I do not for one moment discount that there is job creation with casinos, but the very fact is everything has tradeoffs, and we know when we bring casinos into towns, it decreases local revenues.”
Ross, the Republican candidate, was originally scheduled to participate in the forum, but pulled out Friday evening. He said that since he was running unopposed in the Republican primary, the two Democrats should “duke it out,” and he would debate the winner.