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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Dull Dem Debate Dims Distinctions

Dennis Fox

January 31, 2002


The Democratic gubernatorial wannabes who came to Brookline for last week's pseudodebate brought minimal evidence of whether they actually disagree with one another. That's too bad for those of us who suspect it doesn't much matter which wannabe wins. Although clarifying policy distinctions makes campaign imagemakers nervous, it might also make the race for governor less boring.

The feel-good Q&A organized by the Town Democratic Committee drew a couple of hundred people to Brookline High School. You'd think so many party stalwarts would want specifics in a town where Dems Rule (I forget, do we even have a Town Republican Committee?). Yet the inability to push the contenders beyond generalities and the lack of candidate-to-candidate interaction masked most differences.

Instead of significant policy discussion, Steve Grossman, Robert Reich, Shannon O'Brien, and Warren Tolman talked up their resumes. I did this, I did that, I went here, I went there. Strong leadership was key, they told us, and then they told us again, and yet again. They complained that Republican Governor Jane Swift is weak -- no leadership there -- but then they complained, inconsistently, that she's moving the state in the wrong direction.

Someone asked how they'd deal with two chief barriers to liberalism in overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts: House Speaker and Autocrat-in-Chief Tom Finneran and Senate President Tom Birmingham, both of them Dems in good standing. (Too bad governor-candidate Birmingham didn't show up to answer that question himself.)

Tolman went the furthest beyond the common stance that a strong governor could cut Finneran down to size. The former state senator pointed to his Clean Elections effort to campaign without Big Money, an effort the other candidates applauded but declined to immediately emulate, and he pledged to cut patronage. Throughout the evening Tolman was the most refreshing and least obfuscating.

Bizarrely, though, the debate's most sharply drawn distinction was over a relatively minor issue: whether to send more lottery proceeds to towns and cities. Sure, that might help the battered economy, if lowered prizes don't cut sales.

But I don't remember anyone suggesting a delay in the planned income tax cut, let alone trying to eliminate the state constitution's ban on a graduated tax. A real progressive might speculate a bit about how to redistribute some wealth.

The first question from the moderator after the scripted opening remarks expressed a key Town Committee concern: the high-stakes Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. State Treasurer O'Brien mumbled something about needing the MCAS test to measure student progress, but then immediately changed the subject.

The other three's emphatic rhetoric masked their underlying ambiguity. They all declared that no single test should be the sole criterion for graduation. But because MCAS supporters claim that the test is not the sole criterion -- after all, students still must pass their courses and attend school -- what's relevant is whether passing MCAS should be necessary, not whether it's the only requirement.

Former US Labor Secretary Reich hedged the most on MCAS. The applause in response to his initial anti-testing tone overshadowed the rest of his response, in which he repeated what he's said elsewhere: he would first evaluate the test, then try to ensure that it causes no bad effects. This recipe for inaction shouldn't surprise those who are still waiting for him to contradict the Boston Globe's labeling him a pro-graduation-requirement candidate.

Former National Democratic Party Chairman Grossman's stance is also inconsistent. He called for "multiple assessments" but ignored his website endorsement of leaving the test intact while allowing some students to bypass it. That option, similar to our newly created state appeals process, leaves MCAS in place to corrupt public education for all students beginning in third grade.

As the candidates prepare to generalize in other locales, the inability to probe makes useful information scarce. Voters seeking someone who tackles key issues head on should check out the Green Party's Jill Stein. I just hope her doomed-to-fail effort helps keep the rest of us awake.

More about high-stakes testing

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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