If Margot Barnet and Joff Smith weren't already the frontrunners in the 13th Worcester House race, they were certainly treated as such Thursday night at the Willows in Worcester. In a debate where all six Democratic candidates were allowed to ask questions of each other, Barnet and Smtih were the two with targets painted on their backs.
Smith was repeatedly called upon to defend his record on the Worcester City Council, while several candidates made veiled -- and outright -- critiques of Barnet's endorsements by teachers and nurses unions.
The candidates are running for state representative in Paxton and several precincts of Worcester, to replace the retiring Robert Spellane (D-Worcester). The winner of the Sept. 14 Democratic primary will face Paul Franco (R-Worcester) and Ronal Madnick (U-Worcester) on the November ballot.
The knock on Smith: "I don't think he's distinguished himself on the City Council. He's been a follower, not a leader" -- John Mahoney. "He just didn't get it sometimes. You need experience. He let 25,000 trees be cut in his district. Unfortunately, he didn't take the leadership role" -- former colleague Mike Perotto. "Joff is trying to have it both ways. I'm not sure what we should be doing [about taxes]. Joff's saying it like it's an easy answer. I think he's pandering" -- Barnet.
Smith painted himself as the taxpayers' advocate on the council, saying he'd stood up to the administration in voting against tax increases, but Perotto and Mahoney took him to task for supporting the lowest residential tax rate -- and thereby maintaining a higher tax rate for businesses, driving businesses out of the city and ultimately increasing the share that must be borne by homeowners.
Late in the debate, John Mahoney tried to pin Smith on a charge of using his political influence to ensure that his family's business's road was repaved. Smith said Mahoney was mistaken.
"You've got to take a look at your source -- InCity Times, which is known for not always reporting the facts," Smith said. His family's business is "on a cobblestone road," not on busy Harding Street as Mahoney had alleged.
Barnet declared herself "proud to have the support of the people who teach our children, the people who take care of our ill." She had a quick rejoinder for Perotto's charge that she was "beholden to special interests."
"Did you seek any of those endorsements?" she asked. He admitted he had. "Then why are you attacking me for having received them?"
"They want to control you, Margot," Perotto replied. Other candidates, later in the debate, emphasized their "independence" from "special interests."
Late in the debate, both Barnet and Perotto pulled insider moves on Don Sharry, quizzing him on health care. Perotto asked him for his opinion on "Chapter 58." Sharry floundered a bit before admitting he didn't know what Chapter 58 is. It's the state health insurance law, Perotto responded; Sharry said he'd like to see the cost of care cut.
"We're both in the health care industry and we both understand this," Perotto said, "but at least I understand what Chapter 58 is."
Barnet asked Sharry what committees he'd like to join, if elected; he said he'd worked in health insurance for 20 years, so he'd like to serve on that committee.
"Which committee is that?" she asked.
"That would be the health insurance committee," he said, admitting he didn't know its exact name.
Barnet's only clear misstep was an overreliance on prepared statements; both her opening and closing statements ran over the alotted time, and she hesitated and dithered before answering a question in the middle of the debate that she had planned to address in her closing remarks. It's hard to say anyone "won" the debate, although Smith and Gina DiBaro managed to avoid making any mistakes.