In the most bitter debate of the Democratic gubernatorial race so far, Treasurer Steve Grossman sharply questioned the judgment of front-runner Martha Coakley on Monday, painting her as a protector of the Beacon Hill establishment, as former Medicare and Medicaid chief Don Berwick attacked his rivals for their support of casino gambling and their embrace of “politics as usual.”
Coakley, the attorney general, defended herself and offered a few hits on Grossman, but also aimed some fire at Republican Charlie Baker, the leading GOP contender for governor.
Two weeks before the Sept. 9 state primary, the three Democratic candidates vying for their party’s nod upped their rhetoric against one another right from the beginning of an hourlong Boston Herald Radio debate.
The forum came the same day as a Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll found Coakley leading her rivals among likely Democratic primary voters. The attorney general took 42 percent to Grossman’s 30 percent and Berwick’s 16 percent in the new survey.
Also Monday, Baker and Mark Fisher, the other GOP candidate, politely disagreed in a debate at the Globe.
Fisher, affiliated with the Tea Party, staked out conservative ground on issues such as abortion rights, while Baker, who supports abortion rights, emphasized his fiscally conservative, socially moderate positions.
Fisher said a candidate espousing conservative positions more in line with the national Republican Party, as he does, will energize voters across Massachusetts. Baker said a focus on pocketbook issues, as opposed to social ones, is the best path forward for the state GOP.
At the Democratic debate, Grossman was the most direct. He condemned Coakley’s settlement with a lobbying firm led by former state legislator John Brennan over allegations that the firm collected $370,000 in improper lobbying fees from a local hospital. In the settlement, the Brennan Group did not admit any guilt but agreed to pay the hospital $100,000.
Grossman mentioned that Coakley’s first TV ad said she’s spent a career fighting for people without money or power.
“This was a guy with money, with power, and he was allowed to walk. Didn’t even get a slap on the wrist,” Grossman said, later noting that Brennan had contributed to Coakley.
“I guess on Beacon Hill, there are some people who are just too connected to fail,” he said.
Coakley defended the settlement and stood by the decision her office had made.
The hospital, she said, came to the attorney general’s office and asked it to look at the issue. “We did a thorough investigation on the facts and the law,” she said. “We had significant statute of limitations issues — many things that come in on whether you can successfully bring a case or not — as well as factual issues.”
So, Coakley indicated, based on circumstances, the office got the best result it could for the state. “We got $100,000 that went back to the hospital that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” she said.
Turning the tables a bit, she said she didn’t assume Grossman had done anything wrong in his oversight of industries that have contributed more than $150,000 to his campaign.
Her campaign sent the Globe a list of what it said were campaign contributions to Grossman from people who work for companies in the liquor and catering industries. As treasurer, Grossman oversees the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
After the debate, Grossman told reporters he supported a number of issues that the alcoholic beverage industry opposes. He cited a law increasing the minimum wage and ballot initiatives on earned sick time and the bottle bill.
Grossman said Coakley had “a pattern of bad judgment” not just with the Brennan Group settlement, but also on other issues, including her decision to allow Partners HealthCare to acquire South Shore Hospital and Hallmark Health System instead of filing a lawsuit to stop the merger.
Coakley defended her record of going after what she called “well-monied institutions.”
Berwick, for his part, made a robust effort to frame himself not only as the most progressive candidate, who would “end chronic homelessness,” but also as a proven, effective leader of big organizations, who was above the petty “bickering” that Coakley and Grossman engaged in.
“Listen to the debate here: back and forth and back and forth,” Berwick said. “Running for office is different from managing. My opponents . . . [are] professional politicians. In the corner office, you need someone who understands management and leadership.”
He referenced his work as a founder and leader of the influential Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and his tenure as President Obama’s administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees those massive federal programs.
In his most passionate comments, Berwick contrasted his position in favor of the ballot initiative to repeal the state’s casino gambling law with Coakley and Grossman, who support keeping the current law.
“Casinos are predators on the poor,” he said, his voice tinged by emotion. “And the idea that a progressive, my opponents, would stand up and allow that kind of injury to occur to the very people they claim to be defending — I just can’t go there; it’s irresponsible leadership.”
Coakley also offered an attack on Baker, whom she called “Charlie ‘Big Dig’ Baker,” over his involvement with the massive transportation project, when he held top positions in state government in the 1990s. Coakley said he left behind a mess.
Baker, speaking after the GOP debate, said that he was involved in an important but small piece of the multiyear project: “a financing plan to pay for a federal shortfall.”
Another Suffolk-Herald poll surveyed likely Republican primary voters. It found Baker leading Fisher by a whopping 59 percentage points.
Each poll surveyed 400 likely party primary voters from Aug. 21-24 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Also running for governor are three independent candidates.
Joshua Miller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.