Massachusetts Senate Debate I: Gomez, Markey’s Altercation In Allston

Whatever fine qualities Gabriel Gomez and Ed Markey possess, neither is very exciting to watch.

massachusetts senate debate

Associated Press

Bernstein: You keep going after Markey saying he has not gotten any bills passed that he sponsored, that he’s written; and he responded by talking about bills he has written that became law by getting pulled into other legislation and they became law that way. Do those not count for some reason?

Gomez: You know, he can give a lawyerly explanation, he can go through the political kind of doublespeak and all that, but the bottom line is that in the last 20 years there isn’t a single piece of legislation that has been signed by the President—

Bernstein: I don’t understand—can you explain why is that a “lawyerly explanation”?

Gomez: Because you can sit there and you can co-sponsor a bill, and you can put your name at the end and all that, I’m just saying, he’s been down there for 40 years, he can come up with the doublespeak and all that, he can defend himself. I tell you, in the private sector somebody does that? They don’t get a raise, they don’t get a promotion. It’s as simple as that. That’s why we should have, if you don’t pass a budget you don’t get paid, down in Congress. You don’t do your job, the last thing you should do is get a pay raise or a promotion or ask the people, to have the nerve to ask the people to get a pay raise or a promotion.

Bernstein: Would you not allow a bill of yours to be folded into another piece of legislation to become law?

Gomez: Of course I would. But the bottom line is that you need, he needs to speak for himself and talk about what he’s done in a leadership position, and what he can stand and sit there and say “this is my bill, right there.”

So, that happened. I’ll get back to that.

In between Wednesday’s installment of the fascinating Whitey Bulger trial, and Game 3 of the exciting Bruins-Penguins series, the candidates for US Senate tried for an hour to get the people of Massachusetts interested in their own contest. In the WBZ studios, under questioning by Jon Keller and the Globe‘s Cynthia Needham, Gabriel Gomez and Ed Markey tried their best to squabble and fight for the cameras, but whatever fine qualities they both possess, neither is very exciting to watch.

It didn’t help that most of the debate seemed like a replay of every other recent congressional and Senate debate in Massachusetts (and we’ve had quite a few): Democrat calls the Republican a Republican who will vote with the Washington Republicans; Republican derides Democrat as out of touch with regular Massachusetts folks and touts the importance of bipartisanship; both insult each other, often disingenuously, while complaining that the other is being negative.

The two big questions for this debate, to my mind, were 1) would Markey let Gomez get under his skin and end up either behaving badly or saying something regrettable?; and 2) would Gomez come across as a minor-leaguer on the stage?

I thought both passed their tests. Markey was engaged and appropriately combative, and although he had some poor exchanges and missed a lot of opportunities, he supplied Gomez no damaging footage.

And Gomez, considerably improved since his primary debates, held his own for the most part by engaging well on the issues, staying on message, mixing in his insults and attacks, and generally not looking lost at sea. He was helped by Markey’s failure to do much with his chances, but a lot of it was Gomez.

There were, however, two points where Gomez ran into trouble. One came at the end, when Needham asked whether he would support a mandated 24-hour waiting period before a woman can receive an abortion. Knowing that abortion is a sticky issue for him, and presumably not anticipating the specific query, Gomez blankly shuffled his notes for a painful several seconds. He then started into his standard abortion language, in which he declares himself personally pro-life but politically pro-choice; then he decided to actually answer the question, saying that a 24-hour waiting period seems reasonable; and then he shifted into a defensive free-style which found him vowing to do nothing to change the law in any way. And, somewhere in there, he said that he might vote for pro-life Supreme Court justices.

It was a mess, for many reasons—not least that he vowed to never support a change in the law, and declared his support for a change in the law, in a single 60-second answer.

But it was particularly striking to me because it was almost verbatim the exact same thing Mitt Romney said when running for governor in 2002—personally pro-life, politically pro-choice, promise to never change the law in any way. Pro-choice Bay Staters never forgave themselves for falling for it then, so it seems like a really bad idea to invoke the memory, especially while admitting that you don’t mean it.

The other bad moment came when Gomez accused Markey of ineffectiveness, citing the bizarre fiction that Markey has not sponsored a bill that became law in the last 20 years. This is utter nonsense, but has been a regular talking point among Republicans in this race for several months now. Gomez lobbed it at Markey, who took it as an opportunity to start citing some of the legislation he has crafted that is now law. Gomez, as he is wont to do, dismissed this as some sort of “slick lawyerly” twisting of the truth on Markey’s part. Even if Gomez was technically correct—and he wasn’t—the audience got a chance to hear about some of Markey’s legislative accomplishments while Gomez looked like a doofus.

I should say here that I defended Scott Brown from a similar charge during last year’s campaign. Democrats were decrying Brown as a liar for claiming that a particular bill he sponsored became law; they argued that the bill that ultimately went to the President’s desk was actually a version introduced by someone else. I said that this was a silly and unfair attack—precise language aside, Brown clearly deserved  to take credit for introducing, and pushing to passage, a piece of legislation that is now law.

The claim against Markey is even weaker. Here’s an example: Ed Markey authored and sponsored a series of bills to improve cargo screening—for example, Air Cargo Security Act, H.R. 2044 in the 109th Congress. His efforts eventually led to the inclusion of the legislation in the omnibus H.R. 1 bill of the 110th Congress, which was passed; the legislation Markey wrote and introduced and sponsored is now law. Here’s another: The Electronic Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 1998, introduced and sponsored by Markey, H.R. 4667, was enacted into law as part of the Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act of 1999, H.R. 4328. There are plenty of other examples; unlike many other congressmen—who can be perfectly effective in other ways—Markey is in fact a real bill-writer, and some of those bills do become law.

Contrary to Gomez’s claim, these are all bills were authored, introduced, and sponsored by Markey, and that became law. The Gomez campaign insists that all of this does not make Gomez’s statement false, because those final bills did not have Markey as a lead sponsor. This is ridiculous. To make this argument requires either naked dishonesty, or an utter ignorance of common legislative procedure, or both.

But even more than the technicality of whether the wording can be parsed as somehow not a falsehood, making this argument reduces to absurdity the actual explicit point of the claim—that Markey is an ineffective legislator. The campaign, apparently, is arguing that it is ineffective to get legislation passed in this somehow impure fashion. Most normal people would take it instead as a sign of Markey’s effectiveness that he gets his legislation passed, regardless of whether it ultimately carries his own name at the top.

Anyway, at the press availability after the press conference, I asked Gomez about it. That is the exchange I put at the top of this post. I can’t really explain it. I can’t even really describe it. Seems pretty minor-league to me, though.

[Note: updated to include portions of the transcript originally omitted.]

Update, June 6 12:05 p.m.: Here’s the Gomez video from Mike Deehan: