The three Republican candidates for US Senate unpacked their opposition research files on Wednesday night, rifling through one another’s careers for damaging information and flinging accusations during the primary’s second televised debate.
Gabriel E. Gomez, a Cohasset investor and former US Navy SEAL, held himself up as the antipolitician and repeatedly labeled his opponents as the kind of career politicians responsible for the dysfunction in Washington.
State Representative Daniel B. Winslow of Norfolk alleged that Michael J. Sullivan, a former US attorney, had lobbied for the gun industry, a charge Sullivan denied.
And Sullivan quoted a letter that Gomez sent to Governor Deval Patrick, putting his name forward for an interim Senate appointment and voicing support for President Obama’s policies on gun control and immigration.
All three candidates panned Obama’s budget, which was rolled out this week, and spoke in favor of entitlement reforms that protect today’s senior citizens. But on immigration, gun safety, and troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, noticeable divisions cropped up.
“Can we really trust career politicians down in D.C. to make the hard decisions in the out years here when all they’ve done historically is kick the can down the road and [are] more worried about their reelection?” Gomez asked during the budget discussion, a theme he would hammer repeatedly throughout the night.
Both Winslow and Sullivan defended their time in public office, Winslow as a judge, top aide to Governor Mitt Romney, and state lawmaker, and Sullivan as a state lawmaker, district attorney, US attorney, and acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Sullivan, who spent much of the night on offense against Winslow, sought to saddle the Norfolk Republican with authorship of the 2006 health care expansion law signed by Governor Mitt Romney, an ideological ancestor of Obama’s 2010 health care law, and for state government spending growth during Romney’s term.
Winslow worked for Romney as chief legal counsel, but distanced himself from the health care policy.
“I had left the administration by the time Governor Romney did Romneycare, and I had no part in it,” Winslow shot back.
The debate, which aired live on WBZ-TV and was cosponsored by the Globe, came with less than three weeks until the April 30 primary. The GOP nominee will face the victor of the Democratic primary between US Representatives Edward J. Markey of Malden and Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston. The general election is slated for June 25.
The evening’s testiest exchange came over firearm safety legislation, a marquee topic on Capitol Hill as Congress debates a legislative response to the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. last December that took 26 lives.
Winslow pressed Sullivan to say whether he would vote for the gun-control compromise unveiled Wednesday by Senator Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. The bipartisan legislation would close the so-called gun-show loophole, requiring licensed firearm dealers to run background checks on prospective buyers at gun show. It would also give doctors permission to submit mental health records to the US background check system without violating privacy laws.
Both Gomez and Winslow said they would vote for the Toomey-Manchin measure. Under pressure from Winslow, Sullivan said repeatedly that the Toomey-Manchin effort “doesn’t address the problem,” but refused to clarify whether or not he would vote for it.
Jumping in, Gomez said, “This is exactly what happens when politicians don’t answer the question. It’s a simple yes or no.”
After the debate, Winslow told reporters, “I’ve been to a lot of debates. I’ve never seen a candidate duck a question the way Mike Sullivan ducked a question today.”
Asked by reporters after the debate how he would vote, Sullivan said, “I don’t know. You know, all the empirical evidence I’ve seen up to this point in time, it would not have any material effect with regards to keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.”
Sullivan said that if empirical evidence arose that the measure would prevent criminals from obtaining guns, he would vote for the background check.
Gomez, who has tried for weeks to contain the damage from his letter to Patrick, came under fire from Sullivan for giving Patrick different ideas about his policy stances than he has been selling to voters.
“I wrote the letter, I own the letter, and I’m proud that I wrote the letter,” he replied. “But I’m also the one who had the guts to raise his hand and volunteer and go down there and serve. The letter could have been written a couple of words differently.”
Winslow, too, pounced on Gomez. He said, “You said one thing to the governor, that you wanted to support the Obama agenda on illegal immigration and on gun control, and then when you didn’t get the job, you campaigned against it. And so, when people talk out of both sides of their mouth, that’s my definition of a career politician.”
Winslow broke with Sullivan and Gomez over Afghanistan, saying he wanted to bring troops home immediately. Both Sullivan and Gomez cautioned against setting a timetable.
Sullivan also hit Gomez, the son of Colombian immigrants, for supporting immigration reform that allows a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, specifically citing a background check threshhold. Sullivan said this policy amounted to amnesty.
When Winslow cited a Springfield Republican story reporting that Sullivan had received at least $5,000 for legal services from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group that opposed recent gun control legislation in Connecticut, and charged that Sullivan was “a lobbyist for the gun lobby,” Sullivan objected forcefully.
“I don’t lobby for anything, anybody,” he said, terming his work at the Ashcroft Group as “counsel work for an industry.”
Following the exchange, Gomez said, “I’m glad this is being televised, because this is exactly what’s going on down in D.C. right now. You’ve got a great picture right here of two people that are going to do the exact same thing of what’s going on down in D.C. right now.”
The debate was moderated by WBZ political analyst Jon Keller and Globe political editor Cynthia Needham.
Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at James.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.