Representative Stephen F. Lynch on Monday used the first US Senate debate since the Boston Marathon bombings to aggressively challenge Representative Edward J. Markey’s vote against forming the joint homeland security task force, which responded to the attacks, and his opposition to other key security measures.
Markedly more animated than in his past debate performances, Lynch repeatedly sought to depict Markey, the frontrunner in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, as inattentive to the threat of terrorism.
Markey responded by pointing to legislation that he authored aimed at increasing security on cargo ships and at nuclear and chemical plants.
The debate, which aired on WBZ-TV and was co-sponsored by the Globe, signaled a return to the campaign trail for the Democratic candidates, who have steered clear of electioneering since the Boston Marathon bombings claimed three lives and injured hundreds more on April 15.
National security and counterterrorism policy dominated the brisk, hour-long session, with both Democrats seeking to highlight their support for more stringent homeland security legislation. Lynch, who has been trailing in public polling, showed a newly pugilistic side.
“Every single member of Congress, Democrat and Republican, that supported funding for homeland security, that supported having a coordinated effort between federal, state, and local officials – we all voted for that, you voted against it, and somehow you’re the champion,” Lynch said, pointing to a 2002 vote to establish the Joint Interagency Homeland Security Task Force in which Markey was one of 10 votes in opposition.
“If I did vote no, the reason I voted no was that they were excluding a provision that would have made the bill even stronger,” Markey replied.
After the debate, Markey praised the anti-terrorism task force’s work since the marathon attacks. A Markey spokesman, Mark Horan, said later that the Malden Democrat had opposed the bill because he was concerned that military representation on the joint task force could give the Pentagon domestic law enforcement responsibilities.
When Markey said he was “a hard-liner” in ensuring the strength of legislation, Lynch shot back, “An extremist, I would say.”
Lynch also challenged Markey on telecommunications, a policy field that has been one of Markey’s calling cards. The South Boston Democrat mocked Markey’s claims that he had worked to break up telephone and cable television monopolies, arguing that the market for service has left consumers with limited options.
“The poor people of western Mass., they’re watching the Yankees tonight. They’ve suffered enough,” Lynch said.
Both candidates also paid tribute to the bombing victims and their families, as well as the professional responders who worked to treat the wounded and track down the alleged terrorists. In a sign of how thoroughly the state has been shaken and distracted by the attacks, lead moderator Jon Keller took a moment at the top of the debate to mention One Fund Boston, which is raising money to help the people most affected.
After the debate, Lynch said the strategic decision to go on offense so vigorously was rooted in “what’s going on around us.” After the debate, a Lynch adviser said the new approach would continue throught the final week of the primary campaign.
“When you think about what these families went through, when you think about the importance of the decisions that the next US senator from this Commonwealth will make, it energizes me,” Lynch said, adding, “Sometimes the times find the person.”
Lynch is friendly with the family of 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was killed in the attack. Another victim, 29-year-old Krystle Campbell, lived in Markey’s district.
The three Republicans seeking the nomination, private equity investor Gabriel E. Gomez, former US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, and state Representative Daniel B. Winslow have all signaled they will adhere to civility in the closing days of the campaign. Voters in both parties are scheduled to pick the nominees on April 30, with the general election slated for June 25.
Much of the campaign’s back-and-forth has taken place on the GOP side of the ballot, leaving the Democratic primary a comparatively sleepy affair. But that changed at Monday’s debate, where the candidates clashed repeatedly over Markey’s voting record.
Markey repeatedly pointed to his work on security for airport cargo, liquefied natural gas tankers, cargo ships, and nuclear and chemical plants. But Lynch put him on the defensive after Markey mentioned that he was one of two members to oppose port security legislation.
“I did not believe that the bill was strong enough,” Markey said, later adding that he opposed the legislation because he felt it did not prove adequate screening for nuclear weapons on cargo ships.
“You’re telling me that you and one other person are the only ones that voted no on that bill, and the rest of us were wrong in protecting our ports,” Lynch said.
Returning to a populist angle of attack he has used repeatedly against Markey, Lynch told Markey, “On fishing rights, I’m with the fishermen, you’re with the fish.” Markey later tossed back, “Steve is putting so many red herrings out here, we’re going to have to put an aquarium right here in the middle of the studio.”
Both candidates said they agreed with the Obama administration’s decision to try Dzhokar Tsarnaev, charged with killing people with a weapon of mass destruction, in a federal criminal court.
Globe political editor Cynthia Needham helped Keller moderate the debate. Markey and Lynch will meet again Tuesday at a debate in Springfield.Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at James.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.