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Stark divide in debate between GOP gubernatorial candidates

From left to right, Charlie Baker and Mark FisherJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff, Stephan Savoia/AP

Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Charlie Baker and Mark R. Fisher met Wednesday morning at a rare head-to-head forum, and while there was little sharp debate, the hour of discussion revealed substantial philosophical differences between the stalwart of the GOP establishment and his Tea Party-affiliated rival.

Baker expressed support for state government involvement — targeted, smart, effective — in a variety of arenas, while Fisher indicated his overriding belief in the free market meant the state should have an extremely limited role.

At the live radio debate, hosted by 90.9 WBUR, Fisher said Massachusetts should “absolutely not” give tax credits to specific industries, expressing opposition to the state trying to help any specific industry, region, or group of people.


Baker disagreed. “I think there are certain situations and circumstances where tax credits are a good idea,” he said, also expressing support for economic policies aimed at boosting certain struggling regions of the state.

On the ongoing Market Basket crisis, Baker said he was concerned for the chain’s 25,000 employees and the small businesses that supplied the grocery stores. While the dispute concerns a private business, he said if he were governor, he would make phone calls to try to help the company’s feuding leadership come to an agreement to get the grocery store chain running on all cylinders again.

Fisher, a political novice and businessman, said he would “absolutely not” make phone calls to help resolve the crisis if he were governor. He said if Market Basket went away, the demand for its product wouldn’t go away because people would still need groceries.

Moderator Bob Oakes pressed Fisher, saying that the chain’s employees could be at risk of losing their jobs.

“Bob, Bob, just a minute here,” Fisher said. “The demand is still there. Those Market Basket employees . . . will find jobs at other grocery stores. It’s a free-market issue, it’s not for government involvement” and “will work itself out.”


There were also clear differences in how the two candidates spoke about issues. Baker, the GOP’s 2010 nominee for governor, sometimes articulated his policy priorities in lists of threes — a common tactic elected officials use to help clearly convey their points to voters.

Fisher often appeared less polished and relied on familiar Republican tropes. “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” he said at one point during the debate.

The forum also touched on a number of other topics, from repeal of the state’s casino gambling law to an anti-gun-violence bill signed into law Wednesday by Governor Deval Patrick to the state’s troubled implementation of its medical marijuana law (Massachusetts has done a “horrible, terrible job” on it Fisher said; it’s been a “disaster from start to finish,” Baker insisted).

Fisher said he supports repealing the casino law, while Baker said he would vote to leave the law in place. The question will be put before voters on the November ballot.

Baker and Fisher both said they did not own a gun, but they diverged on whether, if they were governor, they would have signed the wide-ranging legislation that tightens the state’s already robust firearms laws and adds a slew of other provisions aimed at reducing gun deaths.

Baker said he would have done what Patrick did, signing into law a bill which, among other measures, gives police authority to go to court to keep people they think are dangerous from buying rifles and shotguns and has Massachusetts join a national database for criminal and mental-health background checks. Fisher said he would not have signed the bill.


There was agreement on other issues: Both expressed support for allowing more charter schools in the state and concern about the Common Core, national education standards adopted in Massachusetts and most other states.

One topic that was only glancingly referenced was the contentious battle about whether Fisher had garnered the 15 percent of delegates’ support at the March state GOP convention necessary to qualify for the primary ballot. The state party said Fisher had not made the cut, but Fisher took the party to court alleging it had not followed its own rules and a judge’s subsequent ruling allowed him to be a candidate for the party’s nomination.

Before the debate began, Fisher was asked to count to check sound levels.

“Fifteen, 15, 15 percent,” Fisher said, quietly chuckling.

Fisher and Baker have appeared together before — at a June forum — but this was the first one-on-one event framed as a debate.

Fisher took sharpest aim at Baker after the debate ended and after his rival had left the room. He said Baker was not just “Democrat lite” but “Democrat strong,” tying him to Patrick and saying he had taken the Democratic stance on issues from income inequality to illegal immigration.

Asked by a reporter whether those stances weren’t more in line with the general electorate, which twice elected Patrick governor, Fisher said: “If that’s the case, then I lose.”


Joshua Miller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.