State Rep. candidates draw distinctions on immigration, backgrounds
The three candidates for the 28th Middlesex District State Representative seat met for their first debate, which was hosted by the Everett Democratic City Committee at the Parlin Library Tuesday night, finding common ground on many issues while drawing sharp distinctions on immigration and their approaches to the office.
Incumbent Joseph McGonagle and challengers Gerly Adrien, a local activist and Finance and Grants Manager at Boston Medical Center, and Stephen “Stat” Smith, who held the 28th Middlesex District seat from 2007 to 2013 before being forced to resign after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts in an absentee ballot voter fraud scheme, fielded questions by moderator League of Women Voters of Newton Sue Flicop. Topics discussed included education, transportation, housing and immigration. On many occasions, the candidates were echoes of one another.
McGonagle spent much of the debate touting his accomplishments as a representative, and the money that he has brought to Everett through earmarks. A self-described third-generation political servant and lifelong Everett resident who served on the City Council prior to his election to the State House in 2013, McGonagle frequently mentioned his experience in his pitch to Everett voters.
“Throughout my tenure as your State Representative, I have worked to ensure that Everett gets the resources and the funding it deserves at the state level,” said McGonagle in his opening remarks. “Serving on the powerful House Committee on Ways & Means … I have secured millions of dollars in earmarks for the City of Everett to benefit the citizens of Everett, and I’m proud to say that by harnessing these funds, we will be making housing more affordable, we are providing more services for the elderly, we are training our growing workforce, we are providing early college credits for our high school students, and much more.”
He stated, “With the political climate we have in Washington, D.C., now, more than ever, we need our public officials to be honest, and someone who you can trust. I have never taken the job of state representative for granted. I have brought honesty, integrity and experience. I will always fight for the funding we need to address some of the most serious issues facing our community.”
Adrien, by contrast, presented herself as a movement builder, someone who could, and would, draw her perspective and power from the community. Adrien grew up in Everett, the child of immigrants from Haiti who purchased a home on Cedar Street. At the age of 14, she began organizing against drug addiction, for affordable housing and for “improving relations between the community and police officers.” Adrien also frequently pointed to her experience at Boston University/Boston Medical Center as a Grants & Finance Manager; she manages a $10 million budget and a staff of three.
“We need someone who’s going to fight on issues, such as housing or jobs, our schools, homeless, the lack of youth opportunities, as well as the rise of health-care costs,” said Adrien. “I want to bring accountability, transparency and passions for our district. We need long-term solutions. Throughout my life, I have dedicated myself to fighting and insuring that the communities that I serve have better resources for a better life. … This is not about the selected few here in our community. This is about everybody. We need more and we deserve more.”
Smith, also a life-long Everett resident, called constituent services his strongest suit. “There is no one who will work harder to address problems specific to you. It’s always the little things that have a big impact on people’s lives, and that’s what I’m best at,” said Smith. “I have lived in Everett my entire life, have seen all the changes, and feel Everett is still the place to be. It is becoming harder for longtime Everett residents and relative newcomers to stay here. Traffic, education, housing, eldercare and taxes are just a few of the important issues people need help with on a daily basis. People want government to work. I have the experience and the determination to tackle these issues at the state level, and I have a proven record of results.”
The sharpest distinctions came on a discussion about immigration. McGonagle called for the country’s undocumented population to be made residents, but was reluctant to move further on the issue. “President Clinton did it years ago, where he made undocumented people residents of this country,” he said. “We need to push the federal government to push the same policy through. It’s extremely difficult with this president, but that has to happen. I’m not saying citizenship – there’s a path to citizenship – but the right thing to do, however you got here, if you’ve been a productive member of our society, you have a right to be here. You’re paying taxes, you’re part of our economy, we’re educating your children, then we need to make you residents of this country.”
McGonagle later stated; however, that he is against making Massachusetts a sanctuary state, and announced his opposition to the Safe Communities Act, which would prevent police from asking people about their immigration status, prohibit police in the state from collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and not allow state money or resources to be used to create any registry based on ethnicity, religion or country of origin.
“At this point I’m not in favor of making Massachusetts a sanctuary state,” said McGonagle. “We need to give law enforcement all the tools they need to help combat – we have an issue in the City of Everett, and I don’t want to get too involved in this issue, but we have an issue with gangs. … And I don’t believe that the Everett Police Department (and I’m only talking about our city; I don’t know what’s happening in other places) – but I don’t believe they’re pulling people over and dragging them down to the police station and calling ICE. I think we handle a much different way, and we have a very diverse police department.”
Adrien stated that she supports the Safe Communities Act and would support Massachusetts becoming a sanctuary state, saying “Our immigrants need to feel protected, especially amongst our elected officials, and know that they would have their backs. I would have their backs. … I believe that immigrants are important contributing members to our society, and we need to stand up and fight for them. It goes back to my values. We have to remember that the U.S. was founded and created by immigrants who came here for a better life.”
She also criticized McGonagle for his mention of gangs, saying that she is “very saddened by this comment. Gangs are not a part of this conversation. We’re not out there wanting to join gangs. As someone who supports immigrants … I’m very sad to hear that.”
Smith stated that while he has “great respect for the immigrants who live here,” he is not in favor of making Massachusetts a sanctuary state. He also stated that he would like to see the federal government “at least have a plan where these people know what’s going on, especially if you take a city like Everett. … It must be terrible to be in the community and not know what’s going to happen from day to day, especially the kids, who have been here since they were two years old, who grew up here, they’re Americans.”
A significant portion of the debate was spent discussing education funding, with the three candidates frequently discussing the recent collapse of a major education bill that many had hoped would fix the chronic underfunding in state aid suffered by the city’s schools for years.
McGonagle, while expressing disappointment at the bill’s fate, was confident that it will pass in the next legislative session. “Nobody was more disappointed that we couldn’t get that bill passed in our last budget than myself, than the senator, than the superintendent and the mayor,” said McGonagle. “But when you give me the opportunity to go back to the House, we’re going to fight hard to make sure in the next sessions that that formula is changed. We have the moment going forward to change it. I’m very close to those negotiations.”
Adrien criticized McGonagle for not pushing to change the formula earlier, before it became a crisis for the city. “That formula was first created in 1993,” she said. “Both of my opponents have been in the House while this formula was still there and still wrong, while that formula was broken for our city. It is not a formula that is working for cities like Everett.”
Smith agreed that the funding formula for the state was shortchanging cities like Everett and needed to be changed, but he felt that legislators would consider funding schools a “given” and was confident that the issue would be resolved in the next session, “maybe earlier than you think.”
All three candidates stated that they are against raising the cap on charter schools.
On reestablishing capital punishment, Smith and Adrien both stated that they are against the death penalty, but McGonagle stated that he would be open to an exception in cases where a police officer is killed. “I believe that if you kill a police officer, that you should be punished, and the extreme punishment is death,” said McGonagle. “They’re our last line of defense. That’s not an easy vote for me to take, but that’s how I honestly feel.”
Adrien and McGonagle both said that they support same-day voter registration, while Smith said he “wouldn’t have a problem with it” but questioned its utility and said that he hopes that the state is “making sure that everyone that signed up was eligible.”
Adrien and McGonagle also agreed on a proposed plastic bag ban, while Smith said that he had “really never thought about it, to be quite honest” but would “look into the reasons for that. I could be open to that.”
On the underfunding of pensions for government employees, McGonagle said that he would have to speak with Finance Committee to give a full answer; Adrien said solutions need to be found to address a gap, and she suggested looking for instances of fraud abuse to cut costs; and Smith said that while the answer is “a paygrade above me” the issue is serious. “They’ve been kicking the can down the road because cities and towns have just enough money to pay the bills that they have today, and it’s difficult,” said Smith.
All three candidates agreed with and expressed pride in Massachusetts’s strict gun laws.
On transportation, the candidates agreed that the system requires more revenue but offered different solutions to the problem. Adrien opposed flat fare increases, but proposed a progressive ticket-pricing system whereby the price of a ride would be income-based. McGonagle stated that he would fight to put the Fair Share Amendment, also known as the Millionaire’s Tax, back on the ballot. Smith argued for increasing price of the MBTA’s weekly pass from $21.25 to around $30.
“That pass could be the greatest bargain on a public transportation system in the United States of America,” argued Smith. “That is all tourists, all people who come to visit Boston. … If they raised that to $30, it is still an unbelievable bargain.”
On affordable housing, McGonagle touted the passage of a $1.8 billion affordable housing bond bill that he helped to pass at the State House; Adrien called for the creation of a Community Development Corporation in the city to create more affordable housing; and Smith stated that he wants to increase funding to “maintain and improve” the city’s current public housing.
The candidates might meet again for a debate on August 20, this time at the Connolly Center from 6 to 8 p.m. All three state representative candidates have been invited to the debate, though it is not yet clear whether they will all attend. That event will also feature a debate for the 7th Congressional seat between incumbent Michael Capuano and challenger and Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley.
The State Primary will be held on Tuesday, September 4. Because there is no Republican running for the seat, the primary will effectively decide who will serve as the 28th Middlesex District Representative in the next session.