A crowded field of candidates is running to succeed state Senator Susan Fargo, but not even the League of Women Voters was ready for the swarm of people who turned out Wednesday to hear the primary election debates in Concord.
The horde trying to get into forums for the two Republicans and five Democrats running for the Third Middlesex District seat was so large that the League of Women Voters of Concord-Carlisle had to stop the proceedings, and ask everyone who didn’t have a seat to leave per the order of the Fire Department.
Dozens of people standing along the walls had to file out of the Harvey Wheeler Community Center meeting room, which has a legal capacity of about 120. Officials estimated about 250 people wanted to attend the event.
“This has been more popular than expected,” the league’s voter services director, Erin Pastuszenski, said to the crowd.
With the Sept. 6 primary approaching, interest in the race was so high that some who were asked to leave the forum lingered outside, watching through the windows.
Inside, it was easy to hear the candidates make their pitches for why they should be elected to the state Senate seat, which represents all of Bedford, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Concord, Lincoln, Waltham, and Weston; precincts 3, 8, and 9 in Lexington; and precincts 1, 4, and 5 in Sudbury. Fargo, who lives in Lincoln, announced in February that she would not seek reelection this fall.
Two Republicans, Greg Howes of Concord and Chelmsford resident Sandi Martinez, took the stage for the first of two forums moderated by Nancy Carapezza, a former president of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts.
The second forum was for the five Democrats vying for the Senate seat: Mike Barrett of Lexington, Alex Buck of Chelmsford, Mara Dolan of Concord, Joe Kearns Goodwin of Concord, and Joe Mullin of Weston.
A difference between the two Republicans quickly arose when Carapezza asked where the candidates stood on a proposal that would extend the state’s bottle bill to include containers that hold water, iced tea, and other noncarbonated beverages.
The current law assesses a refundable nickel deposit on containers of carbonated beverages, including beer and soda.
Martinez, who helped form the Greater Lowell Tea Party, said the people she has spoken with feel the bottle bill is just another tax. She said there is concern that taxing water and juice bottles could have some unintended consequences.
“That might encourage people not to choose the healthy choices of water and juice,” said Martinez, who has three previous bids for the Third Middlesex seat that were unsuccessful.
Howes, who completed his second term on the Concord Board of Selectmen this year, said that as a selectman he and his colleagues wrote a letter to the state encouraging legislators to pass the bottle bill.
“I believe people are willing to pay a nickel of tax to solve the problem of too much plastic in our environment,” he said.
One of the more intriguing questions for the Democratic rivals asked whether there is an issue they feel so strongly about that they would support or oppose it even if it meant breaking with their party or going against their constituents.
Dolan, a public defender who has been a member of the Democratic State Committee, voiced her opposition to the state’s new “three strikes” law, recently signed by Governor Patrick, that bars parole for habitual violent offenders.
But Dolan said she agrees with the Democratic Party’s platform in general.
“I think the Democrats are right,” Dolan said. “I frankly am hard pressed to think of an issue that I would break with them over.”
Kearns Goodwin, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he would have voted against the state’s casino bill, and said there are always issues that a person should be willing to stand up and fight for on behalf of working-class families, even in the face of Democratic opposition.
“I think that is one of the reasons that the entire process has gotten such a bad rap,” said Kearns Goodwin. “People feel that individuals are going along with the party line for its own sake.”
Mullin, who has served on several Weston boards and committees, including as a selectman, said he supports a “single-payer” health insurance system, which would be administered by the government, even though it wasn’t included in federal health care reform.
On the state level, Mullin said, he opposes the Democratic Party having primary elections in September, leaving only a few weeks before a general election in November. Mullin said he thinks the primary elections should be held in June.
Barrett, a former state senator who ran for governor in 1994 and lost, said he’s proud of the Democratic Party, but it can’t help but be affected by the conservative surge seen as washing over the country. Barrett said cuts have been made to human services in recent years “without a squeak from the Democratic leadership” because the party has felt constrained not to discuss adding revenues.
“We are growing more timid,” he said. “I would beg to differ with my leadership if we continue with that trend.”
Buck, an engineer who has worked in the life sciences industry and served as a Chelmsford Town Meeting member, said he would have differed from his party on the legislative redistricting for Chelmsford as well as some provisions in the state’s casino law.
He said he thinks candidates are elected to represent their communities, not their political parties.
“We have too many career politicians — folks that are up there making the choices for their career and not the communities,” Buck said.
The winners of the primary elections for both parties will face off in the general election on Nov. 6.