Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker were more combative in their second debate, quarreling pointedly Tuesday night over the state’s troubled child protection system and spiraling health care costs.
The hourlong debate exposed some of the rising tensions that have animated the race since a pro-Baker super PAC launched a blistering ad accusing Coakley of failing to protect abused children in the state’s Department of Children and Families.
Coakley, who has strongly denounced the ad, repeatedly pointed to her work as a prosecutor who handled child abuse cases and accused Baker of presiding over cuts to the child welfare system when he was state budget chief in the 1990s.
“When your administration was . . . cutting budgets, we were seeing the uptick in those cases in the child abuse unit where I worked in Middlesex County,” she said.
Baker said he was proud of the work he had done with the state child welfare agency, saying the department had received awards when he was in government. He cast himself as a sharp manager and was more forceful than Coakley in denouncing recent problems with the state’s health care website, which has been plagued by errors and has cost millions of dollars to fix.
“The most important thing the next governor is going to have to do is have a firm hand on the tiller and follow through and execute,” he said, adding later that “the next governor should be a weed whacker.”
Baker repeatedly faulted Coakley for defending DCF against a lawsuit from a children’s advocacy group that has accused the department of endangering foster children. That suit is at the heart of the Republican super PAC ad attacking Coakley.
Baker’s attacks, along with those lobbed by Coakley and the three independent candidates, were often pointed, but not personal.
Even when the debate delved into the emotional issue of child abuse, there were no fireworks or angry moments. Baker, in fact, went out of his way to praise Coakley’s work as a prosecutor.
“No one is questioning your work as a child advocate across your long and distinguished career in the public sector,” Baker, who at 6-foot-6 loomed over Coakley as she stood at a podium next to his. “It’s work she, and all of us, should be proud of.”
But he said DCF’s recent history of botched cases shows Coakley was wrong to fight the advocacy group’s lawsuit. “Massachusetts and the children served by that department would have been better served if the Commonwealth had moved instead to fix what was wrong on that agency, instead of litigating that case,” he said.
Coakley argued that the case did not have merit and said she preferred to have the state try on its own to repair DCF, “rather than spend millions of dollars on outside lawyers.”
She was clearly determined not to cede ground on the issue. When Baker said he had read briefs in that suit and found them compelling, Coakley pounced by saying her connection to the issue was far more personal.
“Charlie has read the briefs, but I have sat with those families,” she said. “I have sat with the people for years.”
The debate, held at WBZ-TV and moderated by political analyst Jon Keller, could be the last to include the three independent candidates: former health care executive Evan Falchuk, venture capitalist Jeff McCormick, and Christian pastor Scott Lively. They are not slated to appear in the three final televised clashes before the Nov. 4. election.
The independent candidates were positioned at the edge of the stage, reflecting how the race has become a contest between the Republican and Democratic candidates who are essentially tied in the polls with fewer than four weeks remaining in the race.
Yet Falchuk sought to make the most of his time on air, and he delivered spirited broadsides that repeatedly cast Baker and Coakley as part of the same failed two-party system. During the exchange over child welfare, he blamed both Coakley and Baker for failing to overhaul DCF.
“There’s an argument going on, and both you guys, Martha and Charlie, have been having an argument with the Super PACs taking out ads attacking each other, talking about these issues that are really serious things and being used as political fodder,” he said. “We should be able to work together on solving these issues.”
He also accused both Baker and Coakley of abetting rising health care costs — Baker by helping to deregulate the health care market in the 1990s and Coakley by recently agreeing with a request by Partners HealthCare to acquire South Shore Hospital and Hallmark Health System, instead of filing a lawsuit to stop the merger.
“They’re both two sides of the same coin on this issue,” he said.
At another moment, Falchuk chided Coakley and Baker for delving into policy details that he said were lost on voters and overlooked the larger problems plaguing state government.
McCormick presented himself as a business-minded political outsider, a perspective he said could help him repair DCF and other agencies.
“This is definitely not something that prosecutorial skills or financial engineering will solve,” he said. “We need roll-up-your-sleeves solutions on this. We need to change the system completely.”
Lively railed against abortion, illegal immigration, and big government. But like McCormick, he was largely ignored by his rivals.
It was Coakley, though, who was often the aggressor going after Baker.
When the debate turned to health care costs, for example, Baker promised to bring “full transparency” to the market.
“It bothers me that you can learn more about a refrigerator and washing machine than you can about health care,” he said. “We should get serious about opening up the cloak.”
But Coakley seized on the issue to target Baker’s tenure as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
“In a not-for-profit, your salary went from over $600,000 to $1.7 million,” she told Baker, echoing an attack line that a Democratic super PAC is using in an anti-Baker ad. “How do you explain that to people whose premiums went up, who lost their care?”
Baker said his salary was consistent with pay in the market and said that, by rescuing Harvard Pilgrim from the brink of financial ruin, he had helped save thousands of jobs.
Later, when the topic moved to the state’s faulty health care website, he turned on Coakley, accusing her of failing to use her influence to fix the site. He said he would seek waivers from the federal health care law to give Massachusetts more flexibility to manage its own system.
“And I repeat: We are the only state in the country that had a horrible experience with rolling out the Affordable Care Act, and no one lost their job,” he said.
Coakley said she, too, would seek waivers to give the state some flexibility but was more upbeat about the future of the federal health care law.
“We’re the only state in the country that actually tried to, and has provided the model, for what has happened at the national level,” she said. “We’ve shown the way in Massachusetts and, under Governor Coakley, we will continue to do that.”
Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@