By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
EASTON -- With three weeks until primary polls open, the three Democrats vying to succeed Gov. Deval Patrick on Tuesday debated everything from the legalization of marijuana to indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry and casinos.
At a forum hosted by Stonehill College, front-running Attorney General Martha Coakley took fire from Treasurer Steve Grossman as pediatrician Don Berwick sought to portray himself as an outsider against the "politics as usual" on Beacon Hill. Coakley has held consistently wide leads over both her opponents in public polling to date as all three candidates have begun now to advertise on television in an attempt to reach voters who may not yet have tuned into the race.
Berwick contrasted his opposition to the state's 2011 law allowing for the establishment of up to three resort casinos with Grossman and Coakley's support for it. Anti-casino activists have placed a question on the November ballot that would repeal the law.
"Casinos destroy communities," Berwick said. "They kill jobs."
Coakley, whose office saw a decision to keep the measure off the ballot overturned in the courts, said casinos are not her first choice for economic development, but the revenues will go towards stemming gambling addiction.
She added that she strongly opposes internet gaming.
Grossman, who as treasurer oversees the state Lottery, noted that Patrick supported the law and argued that Bay State residents are sending revenue to other states' coffers when they head to casinos outside of Massachusetts.
"This is politics as usual," Berwick responded, adding that the jobs will be low-income and "effervescent."
The candidates were also asked about the indictment of Perry, which Grossman used as an opportunity to go on the offensive against Coakley.
Perry, a potential Republican candidate for president in 2016, has been charged with two counts of an abuse of power for allegedly taking aim at a public integrity unit within a Democratic district attorney's office and vetoing its funding.
Asked by one of the media panelists, WCVB's Janet Wu, whether the Texas governor went too far in exercising his power or if prosecutors overreached, Grossman said "at least a group of [Perry's] peers" felt the governor had violated the law.
Berwick said the prosecutors appeared to be correct, while Coakley said the indictment "raises questions," saying politics shouldn't get in the way of judgment and criteria for a prosecutor.
That prompted Grossman to hit Coakley over a case involving a Beacon Hill lobbying firm. Coakley's office announced on Friday that the Brennan Group will pay $100,000 to the Franciscan Hospital for Children and avoid civil or criminal charges.
Her office said the group had charged lobbying fees that were illegally contingent on successful lobbying. The outfit, headed by former Sen. John Brennan, had been paid $370,855 under the allegedly inappropriate agreement.
Grossman asked why the money was not returned in full.
Coakley said the agreement her office reached was "very fair." "I stand on that determination," she said, adding that her office was working with an outdated statute.
Grossman then asked whether Brennan had a history of campaign donations to Coakley. She said the donations were "very transparent."
In a potential dig at Grossman, whose mother is a top funder of a pro-Grossman super PAC, Coakley added that she supports campaign finance transparency and pointed to her opposition to super PAC groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.
The three candidates were asked whether they were satisfied with House Speaker Robert DeLeo's denials of a "quid pro quo" in the Probation Department hiring scandal that lead to the conviction of the department's former commissioner. During the trial of three former probation officials, who were convicted of rigging hiring, DeLeo's name was brought up as an unindicted co-conspirator, though he was never charged.
DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, has strenuously maintained that he did nothing wrong. Coakley said she was satisfied "at this point," while Berwick said, "I'll take him at his word this time." Grossman said he agreed with his rivals.
Asked whether she would support a House Ethics Commission investigation into probation department hiring that some House Republicans have raised as a possibility, Coakley mentioned probes already conducted by an independent counsel in 2010 and the trial of probation officials this year. She added after the forum that she also takes the speaker "at his word."
Legalization of marijuana also surfaced as a topic. Voters in separate ballot questions have approved the decriminalization of marijuana and the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.
"I know the issue is coming," Coakley said, but she wants to see how Colorado and Washington, which have legalized marijuana, handle the issue before weighing in.
Berwick also pointed to the "experiments underway" in those two states in his response.
Grossman said he is "open" to full legalization, but called the implementation of the medical marijuana ballot initiative a "huge problem," pointing the state's moves to award provisional licenses before a full vetting of the applicants. "We've done this very poorly," he said.
During a lightning round, they were asked if they had ever voted for a Republican. Berwick said state ballots in Massachusetts are secret, while Coakley said, "Not that I can recall." Grossman said he voted for Frank Sargent, who served as governor from 1969 to 1975.
The three candidates sounded supportive, though conditional, notes on charter schools, and raised concerns about a proposed gas pipeline that would run through Massachusetts and that has drawn the ire of environmental groups and activists.
The forum was moderated by MSNBC's Steve Kornacki.
Former health insurance executive Charlie Baker and Shrewsbury's Mark Fisher are competing in the Republican primary.
The primaries are set for Sept. 9, with the general election scheduled for Nov. 4.
Three independent candidates are also running: Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively.