Candidate Alexandra Chandler, fourth from left, takes her turn answering a question on the second of two panels during Wednesday’s 3rd Congressional
Candidate Alexandra Chandler, fourth from left, takes her turn answering a question on the second of two panels during Wednesday's 3rd Congressional District debate. Joining her, from left, are fellow Democrats Lori Trahan, Dan Koh, Jeff Ballinger, Juana Matias and Barbara L'Italien. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / JOHN LOVE

Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

FITCHBURG -- The second of two debates for 3rd Congressional District Democrats again featured widespread agreement on progressive policies, but there was a sharper edge to the evening's tone as some candidates began to criticize others directly.

Six of the 11 Democrats seeking the seat -- down from an even dozen after Marlboro's Keith St.John announced his withdrawal from the race earlier in the day -- participated in the second session Wednesday at Fitchburg State University. The debate was organized by The Sun, the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise and the Boston Herald.

Backers of candidate Lori Trahan hold signs along with those supporting other candidates before Wednesday’s Fitchburg State debate. The forum broke
Backers of candidate Lori Trahan hold signs along with those supporting other candidates before Wednesday's Fitchburg State debate. The forum broke the field into two panels. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / JOHN LOVE

Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

As had been the case in a previous debate, Lori Trahan, of Westford; Dan Koh, of Andover; Jeff Ballinger, of Andover; Alexandra Chandler, of Haverhill; Juana Matias, of Lawrence; and Barbara L'Italien, of Andover, shared views that were frequently similar, often pivoting in their answers to focus on their unique personal experiences and qualifications.

Economic concerns were a key focus of the evening, starting with the opening question, which asked candidates what their top priority would be if Democrats retook the House of Representatives. Matias said economic inequality, Trahan and Chandler said replacing last year's tax bill, Koh said a comprehensive jobs bill, L'Italien said stabilizing health care costs and Ballinger said limiting the influence of money in politics.


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Every candidate except Ballinger said they support a federal $15 minimum wage, and every candidate except Trahan said they support making public colleges tuition-free. Chandler also said she supports a federal job guarantee.

Compared to the first panel, candidates in the second debate positioned themselves in opposition to Republican leaders far more frequently. President Donald Trump was a common target, particularly during discussion of the tax bill that all six Democrats on stage opposed.

"We have a president who literally just passed a plan that takes money from those who need it most and gives it to the 1 percent," Koh said. "We should all find that unacceptable."

The candidates all expressed some degree of support for a single-payer health care system, although Ballinger said achieving that goal might be unrealistic unless other major political changes come.

They agreed, too, that the federal government should invest far more resources in addressing the opioid epidemic, stressing the importance of treatment programs and stopping doctors from overprescribing painkillers.

"The federal government hasn't put any money into this issue," Trahan said. "We have not stepped up to do our part."

It was clear, in a debate where so many questions drew similar suggestions, that candidates were eager to frame their answers in personal terms. Matias and L'Italien often cited work they had done in the Legislature. Chandler at times discussed her experience in Naval intelligence and the small-money nature of her campaign.

Matias and Trahan on several occasions mentioned their working-class upbringings in Haverhill and Lowell, respectively, with Matias in particular arguing that voters should select someone who understands economic challenges first-hand.

"The Democratic party talks a lot about being the party of the working class, and yet we fail to elect time and time again people who actually understand what that's like," Matias said. "I came from a working-class family. It's shaped me into who I am today."

The second session saw a handful of barbs exchanged, something that has not been done regularly in the race so far. While answering a question about sexual harassment in government, L'Italien said she was "disappointed" that female members of the state House of Representatives did not do more to help Rep. Diana DiZoglio when she stood up to address the question of non-disclosure agreements -- a veiled jab at Matias, herself a state representative.

Asked after the debate for a response to L'Italien's comment, Matias said she was "proud" of legislation the House passed on the topic.

L'Italien also took shots at the race's fundraising leaders, calling out Koh and Gifford by name. 

"I think we need to be talking about standing up to the top 1 percent that are really benefiting under the tax policy in this nation, and I think it's hard to imagine that every candidate will do so when in fact some of them have taken giant money from the wealthiest 1 percent," L'Italien said. "$2.5 million already raised by Mr. Koh, $164,000 taken by Mr. Gifford from Wall Street and the financial industry."

In a response after the debate, Koh said he was "proud to have the support of family and friends who see my work and make a good congressman." Gifford, who participated in Wednesday's first debate, also said he was "proud" of the support he received and said no donors expected anything in return.

Trahan made more veiled remarks about other candidates, using her closing remarks to discuss growing up in Lowell and lashing out at those such as Koh and Gifford who moved into the 3rd District shortly before launching congressional campaigns.

"Too many candidates are moving in to run," Trahan said. "Too many candidates are raising their money from special interests or donors who have no ties to this district."

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