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The Boston Globe

Politics

One final, cordial Democratic debate before convention

Candidates seek to set selves apart

Joseph Avellone (right) took a "selfie" photo of candidates after a debate at Suffolk University in Boston.

Matt Stone/Pool

Joseph Avellone (right) took a "selfie" photo of candidates after a debate at Suffolk University in Boston.

The five Democratic candidates for governor of Massachusetts used one final debate before this weekend’s party convention to distinguish themselves from one another — even as they agreed on many of the issues in the campaign.

Tuesday’s debate, sponsored by the Boston Herald and Suffolk University, was the candidates’ final opportunity to stake out their terrain before party delegates meet in Worcester. Many of the issues — immigration, casinos, legalizing marijuana, diversity, transportation — had been well-parsed previously.

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Joe Avellone, Don Berwick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, State Treasurer Steve Grossman, and Juliette Kayyem were cordial, though there were some pointed comments directed at Coakley.

The candidates reiterated their positions on a proposed ballot question to repeal the state casino law — and the ruling by Coakley’s office that the measure is unconstitutional, an opinion now under consideration by the Supreme Judicial Court.

“Can I say something to the attorney general?” Kayyem said. “When you go after banks or use the force of the attorney general’s office for something good, you always say ‘I, I did this.’ On this issue, it’s ‘we, my office.’ This is a huge issue for this state. . . . You can’t hide behind the we of the office.”

Berwick, a staunch opponent of casinos, said he would vote to repeal the law. Kayyem would vote to keep it. Avellone said the law should stand. Grossman said if the question appears on the ballot, he would not vote to repeal the law.

The debate was moderated by John Nucci, the university’s vice president of government and community affairs, and Rachelle Cohen, the Herald’s editorial page editor. Four Suffolk students asked prerecorded questions about the cost of public transportation, affordable housing, affirmative action disadvantaging white university students, and student loan debt. Two questions were taken from Twitter about welfare fraud and legalizing marijuana.

Kayyem said she would look to Colorado and Washington for models of how to legalize marijuana, cautioning that the US government essentially gave “a wink and a nod” to those states. That could change with a new president and US attorney general making the argument somewhat moot, she said.

Coakley agreed, saying state and federal government rules are not aligned on the issue.

Grossman said he was not in favor of fully decriminalizing marijuana, pointing to the state’s problematic start to medical marijuana.

“That has been a fiasco,” he said. “The process has been absolutely mismanaged.”

Avellone, who like Berwick is a physician, said Massachusetts must be rigorous in its policies surrounding marijuana, saying the state is not ready for legalizing the drug for recreational use.

Berwick emphasized the medical benefits of marijuana to relieve nausea and pain, saying “we have to make sure we’re a compassionate state and get it done right.”

All of the candidates were vocal supporters of Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone's recent executive order ending his city’s compliance with the federal Secure Communities program, saying the law breeds mistrust among the state’s most vulnerable communities. The law calls for holding arrested immigrants for up to 48 hours after they have posted bail or are ordered released, based solely on suspected immigration violations.

“Secure Communities is broken,” said Kayyem, a former federal and state homeland security official. She said this was part of a larger conversation on immigration that included giving in-state tuition or driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants.

But the candidates were not in harmony on giving immigrants in the country illegally driver’s licenses, a recent push by immigration advocates in Massachusetts and throughout the nation.

“We disagree around this table on the issue of driver’s licenses, which I do believe is a public safety issue,” said Grossman, who along with Berwick and Avellone supports the policy. “Why would you want people driving in Massachusetts without driver’s education, without [a] driver’s test, without insurance?”

Coakley softened her position on the issue of driver’s licenses in March, saying she was open to the idea after opposing efforts in the past.

On the Secure Communities Act, she blamed the federal government for being overzealous with a law that was supposed to return foreign criminal predators to their country of origin.

“The evil person here is the federal government,” she said.

There are four other candidates in the race for governor, including Republicans Charlie Baker and Mark Fisher, and independents Jeff McCormick and Evan Falchuk.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com.

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