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Chang-Díaz targets Healey at gubernatorial forum

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and Attorney General Maura Healey at an environmental forum on Wednesday night.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Seeking to gain ground in the Democratic primary for governor, state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz on Wednesday aggressively targeted Attorney General Maura Healey’s record on policing reforms, education, and the environment, charging that Healey has failed to fully embrace the equity lens that both say anchors their campaigns.

The criticisms, made at a gubernatorial forum, marked a striking escalation in Chang-Díaz’s rhetoric and added to a series of differences the Jamaica Plain Democrat sought to draw as she’s trailed Healey badly in public polling, fund-raising, and name recognition since the attorney general entered the race in January.

They were also notable for their timing. Billed as a “conversation” about climate change and environmental policy, the forum, hosted by the Environmental League of Massachusetts and WBUR, served as perhaps the highest-profile public event to date in a sleepy race that’s been devoid of debates or much drama.

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That shifted halfway through the event. In discussing environmental justice, Chang-Díaz directly addressed Healey, charging that there were “many moments that people of color needed you to be there to center racial equity when you did not.”

She cited Healey’s testimony in a closely watched policing bill in 2020, when she argued against a total ban on no-knock warrants and against an outright one on police’s use of facial recognition technology. She also charged that the attorney general should have more forcefully advocated for legislation — now law — that reworked the state’s school funding formula, including dedicating more aid to low-income communities.

The comments marked a detour from an event that largely focused on the nuts and bolts of their climate change plans and featured Healey touting her litigation against ExxonMobil and what she billed as more than “200 actions” against the Trump administration on environmental matters.

“I respect the hell out of your work on the national level,” Chang-Díaz said to Healey. “But standing up for racial equity at every turn means more than doing it when it’s against Donald Trump or against ExxonMobil. The next governor is going to need to have the courage to do that when it’s against members of our own party.”

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Healey called Chang-Díaz’s attacks “mischaracterizations” and said her work as attorney general has gone well beyond national fights, including pushing back on the City of Boston’s plans to cut down trees lining Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury or assisting families facing eviction. Helping the state’s “marginalized” residents, she said, has been her focus.

“That has been my life’s work in the attorney general’s office and will remain my commitment as governor,” Healey said, drawing some applause from the crowd.

The forum, which was moderated by Radio Boston host Tiziana Dearing, also delved deep into the candidates’ plans for addressing climate change, both of which they have emphasized as key campaign planks.

Healey has vowed to be the “most aggressive governor in the country on climate,” proposing a plan that includes allowing cities and towns to ban natural gas in new buildings and replacing 1 million gas-burning cars with electric by the end of the decade. Chang-Díaz has pitched a statewide Green New Deal that includes eliminating “all carbon emissions” from new buildings by 2030 and pledging to block the construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Both also back full electrification of public transit, including MBTA buses by 2030 and other modes of public transit by 2040.

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Attorney General Maura Healey.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

But the forum provided key differences in how they would seek to fund their agendas.

Chang-Díaz said she backs pursuing some form of “a tax on carbon,” saying it is important that policy makers make clear how they intend to pay for ambitious plans. “It is going to take money. We cannot hide the ball on that,” she said.

The funding mechanisms for Healey’s plans include a pledge to commit at least one percent of the state budget to its environmental and energy agencies. At Wednesday’s forum, she said she also favors revisiting failed programs like the Transportation and Climate Initiative, the controversial regional cap-and-invest pact that Governor Charlie Baker pulled the state’s support from after other states would not commit.

Healey, however, said she did not currently back pursuing a carbon tax.

“I’m not committing to that right now,” Healey said. “We’re going to need that regional collaboration.”

Chang-Díaz rejected that approach. “It is a very precarious position to put our state in to put us at the mercy of the political winds of folks in other states,” she said.

For Chang-Díaz, the forum was an opportunity to not only differentiate herself from Healey but also stand out in a two-way race that has been all but consumed by Healey.

The South End Democrat was leading Chang-Díaz by 45 percentage points in a UMass Lowell survey of likely primary voters released last week. Chang-Díaz has also struggled to find opportunities to directly challenge Healey on bigger public stages.

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Last month, she challenged Healey to three live, televised debates before June in a move some political experts said signaled concern over her level of support at the state’s Democratic Party convention that month. Healey has since agreed to two debates but before the primary election in September.

On Wednesday, Chang-Díaz took a different route, asking Healey to join her in rejecting donations from executives, lobbyists, or PACs led by oil, gas, and coal companies, charging that Healey has taken tens of thousands of dollars from them since her reelection in 2018.

Healey demurred, saying she didn’t know the specifics of the contributions Chang-Díaz was referring to, and defended her record.

“I don’t think the fossil fuel industry likes me too much,” Healey said, citing her investigation into ExxonMobil. “I am not on their holiday card list.”

At the close of the forum, both were asked what “green job” they thought would be “coolest” to have. Healey pinballed between a few ideas, while Dearing said she would want to build wind turbines.

“How about for you?” Dearing asked Chang-Díaz.

“Governor,” she said.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.