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Democratic candidates for governor spar in debate

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donald Berwick, Martha Coakley, and Steven Grossman were at Stonehill College Tuesday.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donald Berwick, Martha Coakley, and Steven Grossman were at Stonehill College Tuesday.

State Treasurer Steve Grossman slammed Attorney General Martha Coakley for her settlement of a case involving a politically connected lobbying firm and for her record of hiring minorities, as they sparred in a Democratic gubernatorial debate at Stonehill College Tuesday night.

Grossman, who trails Coakley by a wide margin in the polls with just three weeks to go before the Democratic primary, argued the attorney general should have pressed for a larger settlement in a case involving the Brennan Group, which allegedly collected $370,000 in improper lobbying fees from the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Brighton.

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Coakley, who announced an agreement with the Brennan Group last week requiring that it repay Franciscan Hospital $100,000 of the fees, defended the settlement as the best she could do with the outdated law that applied in the case. “Well, this is a case we investigated and we reached a decision that I think is very fair based upon the current state of the law,” she said.

The agreement alleges that the lobbying firm entered into a contingency agreement with Franciscan, under which it earned a percentage of state funding it won for the hospital. State law forbids such agreements.

Coakley also pushed back when Grossman pointed out that he had hired a more diverse staff in the treasurer’s office than she had in the attorney general’s office, saying she had worked hard to hire minorities. “I’ll stand on that record anytime,” she said.

The exchanges over the legal settlement and hiring practices were among the few flashpoints in a relatively tame debate that found broad agreement among the candidates – Coakley, Grossman and health care expert Donald Berwick – on everything from tackling homelessness to opposing a proposed natural gas pipeline in Massachusetts.

The debate, moderated by MSNBC host Steve Kornacki, was a sort of informal kickoff to the crucial final weeks of the campaign. It also served as something of a microcosm for a campaign that has featured some high-minded policy discussion but little in the way of real sparks.

Weekly Boston Globe polls show Coakley holding a consistently wide lead over her opponents. At last count, 45 percent of likely Democratic primary voters supported Coakley, with 21 percent backing Grossman and 10 percent behind Berwick.

Virtually all Democratic voters recognize Coakley’s name. But almost one-third say they do not recognize Grossman’s and nearly seven in 10 do not know Berwick’s name.

The Grossman and Berwick camps are banking on television advertisements, increased media coverage, and voters’ natural tendency to tune in to the contest in the final weeks to shift the dynamic.

While Grossman and a super PAC supporting his candidacy have thrown some elbows at Coakley, Berwick has not engaged the front-runner as directly.

Instead, he has pitched himself as the true progressive in the race, calling for single-payer health care system and an end to homelessness.

Berwick, who ran Medicare and Medicaid in the Obama administration for 1½ years, hit on those themes again Tuesday night. And he argued, repeatedly, that the state needs an accomplished and principled administrator in the corner office, not a politician.

His campaign says he is well-positioned to take that message to voters in the final weeks of the campaign.

He has kept pace with his better-known rivals in building a volunteer base and fund-raising; in the first two weeks of August, he pulled in more campaign cash than either of his Democratic rivals or Republican front-runner Charlie Baker, according to state filings and numbers provided by the campaigns.

Grossman asked Coakley directly why she didn’t push for lobbyist John Brennan — a former state representative and state senator — to return the full $370,000 in fees collected from Franciscan. And he made hay of Brennan’s past contributions to Coakley’s campaigns.

Coakley said her office reached a fair agreement and made it public. “I stand on that determination,” she said. “I think it accomplished the right result in the right way.”

She said the Brennan donations are public record.

And she raised concerns about the money flowing into super PACs. That appeared to be an oblique reference to the pro-Grossman super PAC, which has attacked Coakley and did not have to immediately reveal its donors until a recent shift in state law.

The debate put a focus on some of the issues that have divided the candidates in recent months. Berwick said he supported a repeal of the state’s casino law, on the November ballot, arguing that casinos destroy communities and kill jobs.

Coakley said the matter would be up to voters but indicated that she would not vote for repeal. Grossman, also opposed to a repeal, made a forceful argument for the job-creating potential of casinos. That argument has an audience. Polls show Democratic voters support the casino law.

The debate had some light moments. Kornacki asked, in a lightning round, if the candidates had ever gambled in a casino. “I have and I’ve also inhaled,” said Grossman.

Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com.
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