NEEDHAM — Democrat Maura Healey and Republican Geoff Diehl tangled in their first televised debate on Wednesday, parrying over Donald Trump, abortion rights, and who voters should trust most as governor to help lower costs and taxes across the state.
Healey and Diehl traded barbs throughout the hour-long forum, which served as a contrast in visions of the issues most pressing for voters. The attorney general repeatedly painted Diehl as wildly out of step with the Massachusetts electorate, while Diehl cast the front-runner as a threat to the pocketbooks of residents.
Healey, a South End Democrat, fashioned herself as intensely focused on addressing affordability, promising she is “going to cut taxes” and throwing support behind a tax relief package that Governor Charlie Baker, the Republican incumbent, had pushed since January.
Diehl dismissed Healey’s promise to cut taxes, noting that she supports a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents, which he opposes. Diehl also charged that her support for pursuing more renewable energy in the coming decades will “bankrupt our state.”
At times, the debate also centered on Trump, who endorsed Diehl a year ago after the Whitman Republican touted the former president’s false assertions that the 2020 election was rigged. The two also held a “tele-rally” for Diehl on the eve of the September primary, during which Trump told Diehl’s supporters that he would “rule your state with an iron fist.”
Diehl, Healey charged, would usher “Trumpism” into Massachusetts, and cast him as an unabashed supporter who would back Trump 100 percent of the time.
“Those are values, those are principles, those are ways that we rejected time and time again,” Healey said.
Diehl called the focus on Trump a “distraction.” (“It’s Halloween time and that’s her boogeyman,” Diehl said.) He also appeared to pull back on his assertions about the 2020 election, saying he had “concerns with the election nationally” but recognized “obviously Joe Biden won the election.”
The debate, hosted by NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston, and NECN, marked the most high-profile event of what’s been an otherwise staid race.
How much it could shift the contest is unclear. In public polling, Healey, a twice-elected attorney general, has held wide leads over Diehl, and she stuck to a message of holding course on what’s worked in the state. She has promised tax relief, aggressive efforts to combat climate change, and an approach that could hew closely to that of Baker.
“Governor Baker’s done a really good job,” Healey replied when asked to give him a grade. (Diehl said he would give Baker a B.)
Diehl, too, has pivoted little from his message during the GOP primary. He has made opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates a centerpiece of his campaign, and promised to give parents more “control over their kids’ education.”
That vow surfaced again Wednesday, when Diehl touted embracing “free market principles for education,” in which tax dollars would follow kids to private schools or other institutions if they choose to leave public school.
Healey cast his approach in more nefarious ways, seeking to lump Diehl in with Republicans who have sought making it easier to pull books from shelves.
“He wants to ban books,” Healey charged. “He wants to require that any time a child wants to go into a public library, they have to get a permission slip . . . that is not the direction we need to go. We need support for our students.”
Diehl, shaking his head as Healey spoke, rejected that.
“It’s not about removing books from libraries or banning anything,” he said. “This is about allowing parents to have a say in what is in the schools, whether it’s the curriculum, or whether it’s within the public school’s libraries.”
It was one of several times each characterized the other’s comment as straying from the truth. In outlining his support for overturning a new law allowing people without legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses, Diehl claimed they would be automatically enrolled to vote in future elections by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The law specifically says they won’t.
“What my opponent said is not true,” Healey said. “No one would be automatically enrolled.”
At another point, Diehl criticized Healey for not more forcefully pursuing political corruption cases among Democrats as the state’s chief law enforcement officer. Healey has never brought a case against an elected Democrat.
When debate panelist Alison King asked if she wanted to respond, Healey scoffed: “There are a lot of responses to a lot of things that are untrue.”
Healey also emphasized the difference between her strong support for abortion rights and what Diehl calls his “pro-life” stance. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll from the summer found that 78 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a decisive majority that substantially exceeds the national trend.
She charged that Diehl supports “taking away abortion,” and said it was evidence of views that “make him extreme, dangerous, and I believe disqualified to serve.”
In response, Diehl said that as governor he would respect the sweeping abortion protections the Legislature passed before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but that he supports Baker’s opposition to parts of the Roe Act,” a 2020 law that codified the right to abortion.
Baker, who supports abortion rights, vetoed the legislation, saying he opposed language expanding access to later-term abortions and allowing 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to get abortions without parental consent. The Legislature overrode his veto.
When asked by reporters after the debate if he would have vetoed the Roe Act as governor, Diehl declined to answer.
“She keeps talking about trying to criminalize abortions and actually what I wanted to do was protect those innocent lives who were born from a failed abortion to get medical attention,” Diehl said during the debate. “That’s infanticide in my opinion, and that to me is criminal.”
Diehl spoke about how his parents, who had him when they were unmarried, shaped his beliefs on abortion, but said that he respect the confines of the law.
”Sometimes you need to set your own personal opinions aside for the good of the state,” he said.
The debate at points turned on handling of energy prices. Both Diehl and the state Republican Party have in recent days seized on comments Healey made at an April forum, at which she boasted of blocking plans for two major gas pipeline projects in Massachusetts, one from Kinder Morgan Inc. and another known as Access Northeast pushed by Eversource and National Grid, the two biggest utilities in the state.
“Remember, I stopped two gas pipelines from coming into this state,” Healey said alongside her then-primary opponent, state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz.
Republicans have repeated her comment throughout recent ads in an attempt to tie Healey’s opposition to new pipelines to the expected rise in home heating costs this winter — a dynamic that owes to several factors, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Diehl extended the line of attack Wednesday, saying that while he, too, is “for renewable energies,” he believes Healey’s approach involves moving too quickly. Healey has said she wants to install 1 million heat pumps by 2030 and put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by the same year.
“She’s going to bankrupt our state,” Diehl said.
Healey cast herself as a defender of ratepayers as attorney general, saying she has helped save billions and noting that she helped protect them from having paid the costs of installing new pipelines.
A little-known libertarian candidate, Kevin Reed, will share the ballot with Healey and Diehl on Nov. 8.