The four candidates for Massachusetts governor sparred Tuesday on everything from jobs and the legacy of the Big Dig to the best ways to close the state's estimated multi-billion budget deficit during their first televised debate.
Democratic incumbent Gov. Deval Patrick defended his first term in office from stiff critiques by his three challengers, Republican Charles Baker, independent Timothy Cahill and Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein, during the hour-long discussion on WBZ-TV.
Patrick said Massachusetts has begun to rebound from the recession faster than other states, although he acknowledged there is still a long way to go. The state's unemployment rate remains at about 9 percent, slightly below the national rate.
"The long-term solution is to grow this economy," Patrick said. "If we continue on this pace, we will make up at the end of this year all the jobs we lost in this recession.'
Baker charged Patrick hasn't done enough to curb spending and to reform and shrink government. He also faulted him for supporting eight tax increases, including a sales tax hike and an elimination of the sales tax exemption for alcohol sold in stores.
Baker said if Patrick had been more aggressive in overhauling state government during the past four years, Massachusetts wouldn't be facing an estimated budget deficit of more than $2 billion for the next fiscal year.
"I like and admire a lot of people who work in state government, but there's no way the current model is affordable," Baker said.
Patrick pointed to overhauls of the state pension, ethics and transportation systems and said he's cut the state work force.
Cahill, who is trailing Patrick and Baker in recent polls, said he would push for both tax cuts and budget cuts, including reductions to the state's health care system, saying that is what's needed to bring spending under control.
"I believe in tax cuts at the beginning, making our state more competitive," he said. "We've got to create a level playing field for small business."
Stein said the state has to do more to encourage "green jobs," but she also criticized what she called Beacon Hill "sweetheart deals."
"I don't think it's a good use of taxpayer dollars when we need to put our teachers, our firefighters, our librarians back to work," said Stein, a distant fourth in polls.
Some of the highlights of the night came between Baker and Patrick, who is holding a narrow lead over his GOP opponent.
Patrick went after Baker for his role in creating the financing plan for the Big Dig as former Republican Gov. William Weld's top budget chief. Patrick faulted Baker for creating a plan that failed to deal adequately with the massive project's then-soaring price tag, saying it's been a drag on the economy and the state's ability to spend money on other transportation projects.
"It's a great big albatross around the necks of the people of the commonwealth," Patrick said, adding that he's continuing to deal with "what you left on Beacon Hill."
Baker shot back, criticizing Patrick for trying to "blame all your problems on Big Dig, which happened 20 and 25 and 30 years ago."
"When you ran for governor four years ago, one of the things you said, over and over and over again, was, whoever it is that's in charge on Beacon Hill needs to man up and take responsibility for what goes on on Beacon Hill on their watch," Baker said.
One of the sharpest exchanges came about 20 minutes into the debate, after all the candidates had unleashed some of their major general election themes.
Patrick, challenged by Baker to highlight some government reforms he had made, pointed to recent changes in the state pension system.
"That was a bunt when we should still be swinging away," Baker said. "We still have a $22 billion unfunded liability."
An exasperated Patrick responded: "You call it a bunt. You've never even swung at the ball."
Cahill, trying to reinforce his independent status, decided to take a pass on the baseball metaphor.
"You know what? I think I'll let these two guys fight it out," he said.
Stein, left out of the exchange, said: "I'll just say this is the kind of bickering that we've come to expect from business-as-usual on Beacon Hill. We hear a Democrat version, we hear a Republican version. And over the years, things don't change."
There are governors' races in 37 states in the 2010 election.