The two Democrats vying for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts struck similar chords Saturday as they addressed almost 500 union members at a candidate forum in Dorchester, their first side-by-side campaign appearance.
Representatives Stephen F. Lynch and Edward J. Markey are jockeying for an endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, which organized the event. Over the course of about 90 minutes, the candidates outlined their thoughts on immigration, education, and health care — and acknowledged that there is a lot they agree on.
Lynch, who is from South Boston, told the audience in his opening statement that he and Markey have promised one another that whoever wins the Democratic primary will receive the support of the other in the lead-up to the general election.
Local 1199 SEIU organizers said they invited the Republican candidates — businessman and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, former US attorney Michael Sullivan, and state Representative Daniel B. Winslow — but they chose not to attend.
Their absence was not surprising at an event where audience members whooped at the mention of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s win against Republican Scott Brown last year.
That audience — many of whom are health care workers, property caretakers, and human service workers — asked questions touching on health care, workers’ rights, education, immigration, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. Many of the answers they got were similar, but the two candidates tried to highlight the nuances that distinguish their positions.
“The budget crisis is one that has been constructed by the Republican party in order to target the programs they have never supported from the very beginning,” said Markey, of Malden.
Lynch took a different tack.
“I don’t think that the budget crisis was created by the Republicans alone. I think there’s plenty of blame to go around for Democrats as well,” Lynch said, adding that the practice of borrowing to fund the government needed to end.
But, Lynch continued, “where there is no daylight between Ed and I is on the issue of how we solve this.”
GOP cuts were targeting the most vulnerable, he said.
“They’re going after Social Security. They’re going after Medicare. They want to go after Head Start,” Lynch said, “Dear lord, Head Start? That’s our seed corn for the future.”
The sharpest contrast between the two candidates arose when an audience member asked each to explain his stance on the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health insurance law. Markey voted for the bill; Lynch did not.
“I have two minutes to explain my opposition to a 2,400-page bill,” Lynch said, prompting laughs, “but let me try it.”
Lynch said he felt at the time that the final version of the health care bill made too many concessions that stood to adversely affect Americans.
“It does not accomplish what it needs to accomplish,” Lynch said. “I will not try repeal it, but I sure as heck will try to fix it.”
Markey called the vote one of the proudest moments of his congressional career. “I agree with Steve, we have to improve it,” he said. “But I thought we have to put it on the books, so we can work from a much higher plane.”
At the end of the forum, members filled out surveys rating the candidates. SEIU leaders will use those surveys to help determine whom they will endorse, a decision that could come as early as this week.
Joyce Harvey, an SEIU member,said she had decided to vote for Markey before arriving at the campaign forum, but she felt Lynch had also made a strong case for her vote.
“Apparently they’ve got a lot in common,” Harvey said, “so it’s hard to differentiate.”
Cynthia L. Harris, of the South End, said she will wait to learn more about the candidates’ positions. But hearing about Lynch’s childhood spent in public housing, she said, made her feel he understood the needs of her community.
Cynthia Bates, of Cambridge, had made up her mind to vote for Markey. Lynch’s no vote on the Affordable Care Act, she said, was the deal-breaker.
But Randolph resident Manio Colas, 45, a health care worker, was torn. He felt both would be good voices in the Senate.
“It’s too early for me to judge,” Colas said.Martine Powers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.