First Democratic Mass. lieutenant governor debate centers on MBTA, potential relationship with Healey

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State Representative Tami Gouveia, State Senator Eric Lesser, and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll squared off on Tuesday evening

Salem, Mass. Mayor Kim Driscoll, State Sen. Eric Lesser, and State Rep. Tami Gouveia are competing to be the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

While it may still feel like the heart of summer, the statewide primary election date is just over a month away. 

On Tuesday evening, the three Democratic candidates for Lieutenant Governor took to GBH for a televised debate. State Representative Tami Gouveia, State Senator Eric Lesser, and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll all joined GBH’s Jim Braude to make their cases for why voters should support them on Sept. 6. Here is a roundup of the debate’s major themes and topics.

Working with Healey 

One of the debate’s first questions centered on how the candidates would work with Maura Healey, the Democratic Attorney General, and frontrunner to be the state’s next governor. The Lieutenant Governor candidate who wins the primary will then pair up with Healey on the Democratic side of the ticket in November, provided Healey triumphs over Sonia Chang-Diaz, who withdrew from the race but still technically remains on the ballot. 

Lesser said he would draw on his experience working with President Obama in the White House, where he served on the Council of Economic Advisers. The job of Lieutenant Governor, he said, is primarily to support the Governor unless it’s regarding an issue of high moral consequence.

“Working for President Obama, you work as a team… and you help implement that vision that’s set by the top executive,” he said. 

Gouveia emphasized the importance of embracing conflict and disagreement at times, in order to dig deep into the “root causes” of issues. The position of Lieutenant Governor, Gouveia said, is uniquely positioned to give voice to the issues that people truly care about. This, she said, is because they will have the ear of the Governor to advocate on behalf of what they hear from the public — both on the campaign trail and after.

Driscoll said that Healey has already rejected the idea of surrounding herself with “yes people,” and encourages constructive disagreements. This is an issue she tangles with daily as Mayor of Salem.   

“I have a senior staff I work with every day. We don’t always agree on every issue. We tussle it out, we have the discussions, we make the best decisions for our community and then we move forward with everybody working together,” Driscoll said. 

Bringing light to the Governor’s Council 

The debate then turned to how each candidate sees the Governor’s Council, a somewhat obscure body that provides advice and consent on gubernatorial appointments, pardons and commutations, and warrants for the state treasury. The state’s Lieutenant Governor automatically joins that group and serves as chair of the council. 

Gouveia said that she wasn’t concerned about the power that the council wields, which includes the ability to confirm judges. Instead, she said that as chair she would emphasize transparency while also making sure that those appointed by the council “reflect the diversity in our state… understand the role of childhood trauma, that they understand the role of systemic racism and intergenerational poverty.”

Driscoll also emphasized the importance of making the council’s business transparent while also ensuring the public knows about it and what it has the power to do. She said she knows how to chair a local government meeting, and can use it to start constructive dialogue in the wider community. 

Lesser said that, while the council is obscure, it wields immense power. Lesser added that he is “uniquely suited” to “reinvigorate” the body because of his experience as Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and from working on two supreme court nominations under President Obama.

Standing out from the crowd

Lesser, Gouveia, and Driscoll were asked a fairly standard, yet illuminating question: “what’s the main thing that sets you apart from other candidates?”

Lesser said that he is the only one from outside I-495, citing where he grew up in Hampden County. He said that it is crucial to have a team that reflects the entire state. Lesser also touched on his federal experience, saying that interplay with the federal government will be key in the near future. 

To differentiate herself, Gouveia keyed in on her 25-year experience as a public health social worker and the fact that she understands collaborative leadership due to her role as a founder with organizations aimed at addressing issues like opioids and environmental justice. 

Driscoll said she stands out due to experience in an executive role. 

“I’ve been a mayor for the last 16 years, I worked in the city of Chelsea as they came out of receivership, I’ve had to actually do the work on the ground. It’s different to talk about things as a policy leader,” she said. 

Troubles with the T

A major segment of the debate centered on an issue plaguing many residents: the sad state of the MBTA. Numerous safety incidents prompted the federal government to get involved earlier this year, and Massachusetts leaders will be tasked with breathing new life into the struggling transit system. 

Driscoll described the MBTA as a “total mess,” and said she knows because Salem has the busiest commuter rail stop in the whole system. Driscoll wants to expand transit like she did in Salem, referencing the city’s public on-demand shuttle, city-owned ferry, and car share program with municipal vehicles positioned around the city. She concluded by saying that leaders need to do a better job of harnessing innovation to make the statewide transit more accessible and better for the environment. 

Lesser said that Driscoll’s answer didn’t get into the specifics enough, and offered a few of his own. He said the T needs to streamline management practices, require more transparency from T leadership, and instill a “culture of safety.” Lesser said that this isn’t a money issue, it’s more of a culture and management issue. The way to ameliorate that, he said, is to “get in the weeds” and streamline the reporting structure while also ensuring that there are real consequences for mistakes. 

Gouveia said that both mismanagement and a lack of the right investments have contributed to the T’s decline. This could be helped by passing The Fair Share Amendment, also known as the millionaire’s tax. 

“If we make the investments that are required to make it reliable, to make it accessible for every person in our state, not just the T but transportation writ large. It’s why I support the fair share amendment,” Gouveia said.

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